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Column: Missing History’s Lessons



Thursday, October 02, 2014
Refuse to think, assume the worst, overreact, disregard laws and rules and then pronounce yourself someone standing up for the best in education. That’s what we’ve recently witnessed in Colorado’s Jefferson County, the scene of pretentiously delinquent student walkouts and teacher stay-at-home protests cheating young people out of learning.

Let’s get to the protests and what instigated them after first noting how American history is so sparingly taught to American students in high schools as well as colleges and universities.

Twice now, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has sponsored studies of what college students understand about their country’s past. Seniors at elite universities? Some 80 percent got a “D” or “F” on a basic knowledge test. College graduates at large? Only a tiny fraction knew of James Madison’s role in framing the Constitution or George Washington’s role at Yorktown. If you think you can test high school students and get better results, guess again — the way they perform is downright scary.

Consider that, and you may then better understand the concerns of three newly elected, conservative members of the Jefferson County school board. As with other conservatives around the country, they wondered if high school history courses needed to be improved, with lots more balance of content, and announced plans for a committee to look at courses and texts with an eye to whether they cultivated patriotism, citizenship and respect for both authority and rights.

Some of what has been said by school board members has gone overboard, but the board was not dictating anything. It was calling for a review. A board member made absolutely clear no one was interested in erasing essential negative aspects of American history from what is taught.

But what about the board’s hope of examining the Advanced Placement course that top high school students take for college credit? Isn’t this product of the national College Board beyond reproach? No, it isn’t. It exhibits questionable economic and other ideologically fashioned, faddish, shallow prejudices, say some highly qualified examiners. The College Board, which figures on a yearly reworking of the course, wants critical feedback. Isn’t that something a Jefferson County review could accomplish?

The response of hundreds of students to the school board has been to walk out of class without permission, carrying on as if the victims of tyrants and insisting their “civil disobedience” is itself patriotic. Here is a history lesson for them, namely that powerful voices, including that of Martin Luther King Jr., have said that punishment for even the most warranted disobedience should be accepted in support of the rule of law. So they should sacrificially embrace an unexcused absence penalty, whatever that does to their grades.

Those teachers who most recently called in sick when they weren’t — causing two high schools to close — should also accept the loss of a day’s pay. Part of what they apparently do not like is a merit pay system, but merit pay, it might be noted, is even endorsed by the Obama administration. Teachers are also unhappy with concerns about the Advanced Placement course, it is reported, and so are many others in the Denver area — I happen to live in this neck of the woods — who seem especially put off by the Jefferson County board members’ emphasis on patriotism.

Let’s therefore end with a pertinent quote from Walter Berns, author of Making Patriots and professor emeritus at Georgetown University. “Our lot,” he said in the book, “is to be the one essential country, ‘the last best hope of earth,’ and this ought to be acknowledged, beginning in our schools and universities, for it is only then that we can come to accept the responsibilities attending it.” I know there are those who squirm at such positive thoughts, but they are being ahistorical.



Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.