Back in 1979, British science historian James Burke hosted a series on Public Television titled “Connections,” in which he linked a variety of seemingly unconnected inventions and historical happenings to explain how everything from telecommunications to nuclear power came to be.
It was hugely entertaining and informative at the same time.
This year, science historian Steven Johnson has been presenting “How We Got to Now,” also on PBS. Using an approach similar to Burke’s, Johnson connects the technological dots to explain hos even the most modern inventions have their roots in the past, sometimes in the ancient world.
Like Burke (but without the bad leisure suits, the plague of the 1970s), Johnson delivers profound facts about how modern life is rooted in the past in an entertaining way that imparts knowledge so effortlessly that we barely realize he’s been teaching us things we need and ought to know.
I thought of those two men and their programs this morning when I read a startling and dismaying piece by John Fea, the chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA and the author of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past over at the Raw Story web site.
It seems the State of South Dakota has decided their public school students, from kindergarten through high school, will no longer be required to learn about early American history.
The new standards, which take effect next year, eliminate the requirement to teach the first 100 years of U.S. history, which means the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the development of the Constitution, slavery, Native People, and all the rest of the history, good and bad, that has accumulated to make us what we are today. Teachers, of course, will be welcome to teach that era of history if they have the time, but the students won’t be tested on it. And as we’ve learned during the past several years, if it doesn’t appear on standardized achievement tests, it’s not going to be taught because more and more of a teacher’s career is based on how students perform on those tests.
I haven’t read what the rationale for this short-sighted and destructive change is, but I’m assuming its bottom line rests on the finances of the situation, as do so many decisions affecting our modern educational system.
Time was, we used to use history as a tool to help us learn from both our successes and our mistakes. Today, what the military likes to call “lessons learned” seem to have been cast aside in favor of ignoring consequences—both good and bad—in favor of relying instead on strongly held beliefs.
It’s a destructive and dismaying trend, and the folks in South Dakota are, unless things change, doomed to producing future generations of citizens with no knowledge of the great errors and great accomplishments that have made the country they live in came to be the way it is today.