Monday, February 22, 2010

Mid-evil History

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Teaching God's World News                                                            February 22, 2010

Mid-evil History

"Don't know much about history" is the first line of a great song about love. It's also an accurate description of the historical illiteracy among many citizens that enables some politicians to get away with sweet-talking lies.

Over the past 20 years, some exasperated teachers have taken to publishing examples of what their students write. Here from a Wilson Quarterly article are some answers to test questions concerning the Revolutionary Era: "The colonists won the war and no longer had to pay for taxis." "Delegates from the original states formed the Contented Congress." "Benjamin Franklin invented electricity by rubbing cats backwards. He also declared, 'A horse divided against itself cannot stand.'"

It gets worse, by the way, when students turn from American to world history. Then we learn that "The Ramons conquered the Geeks," and "Nero was a tyrant who tortured his subjects by playing the fiddle to them." We're also told that "William Tell shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son's head," and that Sir Francis Drake, with the audacity typical of English sailors four centuries ago, "circumcised the world with a 100- foot clipper."

These comments may be funny, but the lack of knowledge is deeply troubling. One survey revealed that over half of high school seniors failed an easy multiple-choice test about major events in American history. To pass, they only had to get 42 percent right! It's no wonder that many citizens cannot discern the emptiness of government panaceas; they don't know that similar programs have been tried and have failed.

But not to worry: One thing students know (they have been taught to have high self-esteem) is that they are more knowledgeable than their ancestors. As one student wrote, "In medieval times most of the people were alliterate."

Since we now live in mid-evil times-we're on the information highway between Sodom and Gommorah-historical illiteracy is only a symptom of deeper problems. After all, why study history if it, like life itself, is merely a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing? If there is no God-given purpose to our existence, why not major in meaninglessness?

In an age of relativism, Christians need to keep stressing the basics: that if we are not here to glorify God and enjoy him forever, we might as well worship false gods by eating and drinking and trying to be merry (although only a fool is merry in such circumstances).

We need to keep insisting that there are only two choices, as Moses told the Israelites: Choose life and good, or death and evil.

But let's not overlook limited educational victories that can be won, even in the absence of deeper understandings. The trendy education theorists of the past 30 years have demanded that history be taught in "relevant" ways. That means de-emphasizing names and dates of major events. That means propagandizing about the capitalistic, homophobic, ethnocentric, patriarchal past that we are only now overcoming.

Christians can do a better job teaching both the details and the meaning.

We can do better by realizing that elementary school is the time (the Poll Parrot stage, as Dorothy Sayers called it) to fill the children's heads with those facts of history. Kids love data, and if encouraged in that vein they will have a solid factual base by the time they enter high school and are ready to argue.

We can do better by encouraging older students to debate the ideas that make history, and to learn in the process that ideas have consequences. History, they will see, shows man's sin, man's occasional ability to learn from past errors, and man's opportunity through God's grace, sometimes to get some things partially right.

We can do better by showing that efforts to do away with a societal emphasis on marriage, family and private property are not new; they have been tried before and they have failed before. (Students do pay attention to the effects of failure; one wrote, "Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. This ruined Booth's career.") The history of past government welfare failure and past government attempts to minimize the role of religion is certainly relevant.

But the deeper question will still remain. Is Christ the Lord of history, or do the intellectual looters of the left have true wisdom? Does it matter if we don't know much about history? Does it matter if we don't know much about God?

- Marvin Olasky, reprinted from WORLD magazine archives

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