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Commissioner Yecke, tear down this wall (of ignorance)!

November 12, 2003

Commissioner Yecke, tear down this wall (of ignorance)!
D.J. TICE
Editorial Writer
St. Paul Pioneer Press

A decade ago, not long after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, I visited Berlin and purchased a gift for a teenager of my acquaintance. The present was a little chunk of the fallen Berlin Wall, which had been turned into a million chintzy souvenirs in an ultimate triumph for capitalism, and for freedom.

The trinket's recipient, then just graduated from a Twin Cities high school, smiled quizzically and asked: "How'd that wall get there in the first place, anyhow?"

I could share a dozen personal anecdotes about encountering similarly surprising gaps in historical knowledge, often among people with more than a high school education. Studies routinely demonstrate the comically awful state of historical awareness in America (twice as many Americans can identify George Hamilton as Alexander Hamilton that sort of thing).

Historian David McCullough has, as usual, summed up the situation best: "We are raising a generation of young Americans who are . historically illiterate. It's not their fault . But it's not just something we should be sad about . We should be angry . They are being cheated and they are being handicapped, and our way of life could very well be in jeopardy."

Now, I wonder how this wall of historical ignorance got there in the first place this wall that can isolate a person as completely as a convict in solitary from the rich totality of human experience? It seems possible that educators had something to do with it.

And so it has been modestly maddening, in McCullough's sense, to see university professors and various teachers' groups rise up proudly to condemn the new social studies standards under development by the Minnesota Education Department. The main complaints: The new standards are too demanding, too positive about America, and they don't give teachers enough flexibility to teach what they choose.

Various accounts confirm that the committees working to draft the new standards for Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke have recently made progress in responding to the critics and finding room for compromise. One trusts this is a good thing. But too much compromise could leave Minnesota students imprisoned in the narrow cell of the present.

I say: Commissioner Yecke, tear down this wall! (And, while you're at it, teach our kids who first said that.)

Having gotten that off my chest, I hasten to add that the debate over Minnesota's new history standards is in itself a welcome sign that we are on the right track. Minnesota is actually having a substantive public debate about history, what's important in it and how it should be taught. Critics assert that the new standards contain too much detail about historical events and persons and too much emphasis on America's founding documents and ideals.

Well, maybe. But "too much paperwork" was the main complaint we heard about Minnesota's previous standards, the Profile of Learning. There was little protest about the content of those standards because there was little content to protest. Anyone who bothers to read them will agree that the new standards are, if anything, too rigorous and ambitious and definite. If this is error, it is the kind of error we should be as quick to forgive as to correct.

Clearly the most volatile complaint about the standards is that they reflect a conservative bias and soft-peddle the dark side of American history. A group of University of Minnesota history professors writes that the standards are guilty of "the refusal to acknowledge (much less confront) the tragedies and injustices of our own past."

The standards probably could do with more emphasis on the historical sufferings of African slaves and American Indians and the laboring classes and others. But here, too, the debate over the standards teaches something that is often ignored or denied.

Education is unavoidably a process of, for lack of clearer term, "indoctrination" it is conveying a body of beliefs, the shaping of minds and attitudes. Minds have a way of changing in a free society rich with information and opinions (and professors). But the ideas children are taught matter.

Minnesotans must decide whether they want to teach schoolchildren that American history is just another sorry sequence of "tragedies and injustices" (like every other nation and culture on earth) or a special experiment in human liberty whose ideals and institutions, however imperfect and imperfectly realized, have produced as decent and successful and improvable a society as humankind has known.

There are, in the end, two basic attitudes toward the past: gratitude or self-congratulations.

If we mostly pat ourselves on the back for being so much more enlightened than previous generations, we will probably be content to be ignorant of history's details.

But if we feel thankful toward the forbears who, despite having harder lives than we, created the society and political system we inherited, we will naturally want to know more about them, even about their flaws.

Write Tice at dtice@pioneerpress.com or at the Pioneer Press, 345 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55101.

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