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Ed Driscoll

No Black Armband Left Behind

June 15th, 2011 - 6:57 am

AP reports that “U.S. students don’t know much about American history:”

Just 13 percent of high school seniors who took the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, called the Nation’s Report Card, showed a solid grasp of the subject. Results released Tuesday showed the two other grades didn’t perform much better, with just 22 percent of fourth-grade students and 18 percent of eighth-graders demonstrating proficiency.

The test quizzed students on topics including colonization, the American Revolution and the Civil War, and the contemporary United States. For example, one question asked fourth-graders to name an important result of the U.S. building canals in the 1800s. Only 44 percent knew that it was increased trade among states.

“The history scores released today show that student performance is still too low,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “These results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education.”

Education experts say a heavy focus on reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind law in the last decade has led to lagging performance in other subjects such as history and science.

“We need to make sure other subjects like history, science and the arts are not forgotten in our pursuit of the basic skills,” said Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and former U.S. assistant education secretary.

Of the seven subjects on the national test, students performed the worst in U.S. history. Officials with the National Assessment Governing board, which oversees the tests, say the results aren’t comparable to the other tests because different students take each exam in different years

Is this at all surprising? For roughly the first 160 years in the existence of the US, American history was taught as a variation of what the British would call “Whig History,” whose historians, Michael Knox Beran once wrote, “devoted themselves to trying to understand the British miracle: They praised innovations that contributed to British prosperity and censured practices that undermined it:”

In his book The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek called it the “liberal tide.” It was a largely British tide, one that brought in its wake ideas that Hayek believed changed the world for the better — liberty under law, safeguards for individual freedom, open markets. No argument there. Nevertheless, in the 1860s and ’70s, the liberal tide began to ebb. The British school of political economy became, in spite of its vast success, unfashionable; knowledgeable people argued that socialism was the wave of the future. The Commune was proclaimed in Paris; Bismarck repudiated the Rechtsstaat (rights-state) in Germany; the industrial nations began to develop elaborate welfare and administrative states. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt abandoned one of the last shreds of British-based liberal order when he took the U.S. off the gold standard.

With the decline of British liberalism the writing of history, too, underwent a change. Earlier historians, such as Hume and Macaulay, had devoted themselves to trying to understand the British miracle: They praised innovations that contributed to British prosperity and censured practices that undermined it. When, however, the liberal tide began to go out, a new generation of historians emerged to repudiate the liberal or “Whig” historians. In his 1931 book The Whig Interpretation of History, Sir Herbert Butterfield condemned the thinking that had prompted Macaulay, in his History of England, to declare that “the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.” For much of the 20th century, liberal history — Whig history — was a dead letter.

Similarly, in the case of the US, it was assumed by most teachers that all of history led up to the founding of what Michael Medved likes to call “the most glorious nation on God’s Green Earth.” I feel very fortunate to have ridden what could likely be the very last wave of that style of education at St. Mary’s.

In retrospect, this style of history took a surprisingly long time to exhaust itself in the US, perhaps receiving an extra lease on life after World War II.  Liberalism, as it became known during the 1930s, had made rapid gains in the US, first as a radical force during first World I and then especially during the Great Depression and World War II. After the War, liberal intellectuals attempted to reposition their movement as being more within the American tradition, partially to account for its success and popularity during that period, and, they hoped, to continue its presence long into the future.

At the start of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, James Piereson wrote:

Postwar liberalism, because of the new political context in which it operated, took on a somewhat different tone and emphasis from the Progressive and New Deal movements that preceded it. During the decade of the 195os, thoughtful liberals came to understand that for the first time they represented the political establishment in the United States. Liberals had been in power for the two eventful decades from 1933 to 1953, and to them went the credit for the domestic experiments of the New Deal, the subsequent victory over fascism in World War II, and the creation of the postwar international order. Liberalism, as a consequence of these achievements, had earned the designation as the public philosophy of the nation. Even Republican leaders, like Dewey, Eisenhower, and Nixon, were obliged to accept the liberal framework of ideas, albeit with the hedge that they could carry it out with greater efficiency. The reformers and critics of the previous generation were now insiders placed in the position of defending their status and the achievements of their movement.

Liberalism, a doctrine of reform, thus began to absorb some of the intellectual characteristics of conservatism-a due regard for tradition and continuity, a sense that progress must be built on the solid achievements of the past, an awareness of the threat of Soviet totalitarianism, and a conviction that its domestic opponents were radicals at war with modernity and bent on undoing the hard-won achievements of the previous decades. Richard Hofstadter, Columbia University’s prize-winning historian, expressed this mood very well in The Age of Reform (19 5 5), his influential account of the reform movement from the 18 9 o s through the New Deal. “For the first time since the 188os,” he wrote, “there are signs that liberals are beginning to find it both natural and expedient to explore the merits and employ the rhetoric of conservatism. They are far more conscious of those things they would like to preserve than they are of those things they would like to change.”‘

In the period after Kennedy’s death, as the New Left replaced the aging but more centrist Democrats of the Truman through JFK and LBJ era, a more punitive strain of liberalism, as Piereson dubbed it, began its Long March through the institutions, not the least of which was academia.

It was around this time that history began to morph into what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey dubbed “Black Armband History,” differentiating it from the more Whiggish “Three Cheers” schools of history, which is now increasingly extinct (I’d be happy to be wrong in this; if so, let me know in the comments below.) As Australian journalist Richard Allsop wrote last year in the Australian Spectator:

Last August, Kevin Rudd called for an end to hostilities in the History Wars. Yet, as with many other Rudd proclamations, this one is unlikely to come to anything. Already in 2010 we have seen Keith Windschuttle and Robert Manne resume their longstanding battle over the ‘Stolen Generations’, and the government’s own history curriculum has been assessed by many through the History Wars prism, despite Julia Gillard’s assertion that its interpretations were neither ‘Black Armband’ nor ‘White Blindfold’.

So, if the History Wars are to continue, it seems opportune to highlight one often- overlooked fact. While in recent decades the Left have clung to a ‘Black Armband’ interpretation of Australian history, until the 1960s, most of them supported what is normally called the ‘Three Cheers’ (or to use Gillard’s term ‘White Blindfold’) view.

The terms ‘Black Armband’ and ‘Three Cheers’ to describe those who see mainly negatives, or mainly positives, in the nation’s past, were coined by the perennially adroit wordsmith Geoffrey Blainey. In his seminal 1993 Latham Lecture, Blainey explained how ‘to some extent’ his generation had been brought up on a ‘Three Cheers’ view, which maintained that ‘nearly everything that came after [the convict era] was believed to be pretty good’. He acknowledged that this position may have been ‘too favourable, too self-congratulatory’, but he argued that the swing to the opposite ‘Black Armband’ extreme had resulted in a take on the nation’s history that was ‘even more unreal and decidedly jaundiced’.

That terminology isn’t used very often to describe American history, but the effect is very much the same, Mark Steyn wrote a few years ago:

While I was down in Australia a while back, they had a big Education Summit going on, and the then Prime Minister, the great John Howard, used a marvelous phrase to me about how they wanted to teach Oz history – as an “heroic national narrative”. We don’t do that. In fact, we don’t teach it as any kind of coherent narrative at all. We’ve taken Cromwell’s advice to his portraitist to paint him “warts and all”, and show our kids all but solely the warts — spreading disease to Native Americans, enslaving blacks, interning the Japanese. Any non-wart stuff is mostly invented out of whole cloth: the US Constitution has its good points but they all come from the Iroquois, and the first Thanksgiving is some kind of proto-Communist celebration of collective farming.A few months back, my little boy came home from Second Grade and said to me, “Guess what we learned today?” I said: “Rosa Parks.” He said: “How did you know that?” I said: “Because it’s always Rosa Parks.” And, if you don’t learn it in the context of any broader historical narrative, it’s just a story about municipal transit seating arrangements.

Teaching only the warts is a terrible thing to do to young children. At its extreme it leads to those British Taliban captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan: Subjects of the Crown who’d been raised in English schools and taught only that the country to which they owed their nominal allegiance was the source of all the racism, oppression, colonialism, and imperialism in the world. Why be surprised that a proportion of the alumni of such a system would look elsewhere for their sense of identity?

But, even in its more benign form, warts-only education leaves a big hole where one’s cultural inheritance should be.

Not to mention how rough it must be on the teachers, forced to make such a grim slog through the worst of mankind’s history everyday. And if the teachers hate a subject, or view it so punitively, is it any wonder their students rebel by mentally tuning it all out?

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