Why Study History and Literature?

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In the following excerpt from the concluding chapter of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr. discuss the importance of history and literature in the American high-school curriculum.

The book draws on findings from the first national assessment of students' knowledge of those subjects. The authors report the results of the test and offer recommendations based on the conclusions those results suggest.

We urge the study of history and literature because we believe they are important. It is not simply because they are repositories for our cultural heritage, nor is it merely that they help us understand the past. Those who study these subjects become more knowledgeable, more perceptive, and more intelligent by doing so. They learn about the forces, individuals, trends, and events that shaped the present; they discover from their own experience the power of novels, poems, plays, and stories to move, delight, entertain, inform, shock, and reveal us to ourselves.

History and literature are the essential studies of the humanities because they interpret for us the human experience. To the extent that we are knowledgeable about these subjects, we are better able to communicate with one another. And the more knowledgeable we are, the more complicated are the discussions that we can have together. Paradoxically, the broader our shared background knowledge, the better able we are to argue, debate, and disagree with one another.

But will we all possess a sufficiency of that shared knowledge, or will it become the near-exclusive property of the more fortunate among us? Remember that not all members of the 17-year-old generation are equally at risk. Some of them possess a decent reservoir of knowledge of history and literature, and those who do tend (with significant exceptions) to be the children of the well educated, the well employed, the well motivated, and the well off.

It is a pattern as old as civilization: A society's elites nearly always strive to ensure that their sons and daughters acquire enough of the knowledge, the cultural lore, and the intellectual traits associated with success in that society. And while success in American society--be it gauged in terms of wealth, prestige, public office, scholarly distinction, social status, or whatever--does not automatically follow from being well versed in such subjects as history and literature, one's prospects are certainly enhanced by being "culturally literate." Hence we can take for granted that the elites will continue to do their best to equip their own children with this knowledge and to send them to schools that furnish substantial quantities of it. But neither our culture, our politics, our civic life, nor our principles of equal opportunity can be satisfactorily maintained if most youngsters enter adulthood with little knowledge of this kind.

It is on that conviction that we base our reply to all who inspect the evidence in this book and conclude that the students did better than might have been expected, that they did reasonably well, that they did well enough, that the proverbial glass is a bit more than half full. It is not just that the complacency of this attitude irks us; it is the elitism lurking within it that the citizens of a democracymust not condone. We cannot settle for an education system that imparts "passable" amounts of important knowledge to its more fortunate students while the majority learn less than the minimum required for successful participation in the society they are about to enter.

Nor need we be fatalistic about this distribution of knowledge. It is not adventitious. It is within the capacity of adults--educators, parents, librarians, television producers, and all the rest--to take the steps by which all our youngsters learn enough to participate in selecting our leaders, in shaping our culture, in renewing our civic life, and in discussing and resolving the important issues before us. One premise of our democratic society, as Jefferson recognized two centuries ago, is that, for it truly to succeed, all its members must have an education that will "enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom." We believe that this remains a valid premise now and for the future.

We hope it is clear' that we do not make a case for a single, immutable body of knowledge that is to be transmitted from one generation to the next like an uncut diamond. Both history and literature are shaped and transformed by the social context in which they are studied. As a nation and a people, we continually add to, reconsider, and redefine the history that we study, because we tell a story to ourselves about who we are and how we got that way. Others who disagree with the consensus version write conflicting interpretations, and these are often so persuasive that in time they change the way we see the past.

In this way, history changes, as it is revised by new discoveries, fresh interpretations, and altered understandings of what American society is, has been, and should be.

Literature changes, too, as new writers add their contributions and emerge as important voices in the American dialogue. Our conceptions of literature also are changed by the discovery of writers whose works were ignored when they wrote but whose voices now seem prophetic, speaking to our own time with an urgency that was neglected during their lifetimes.

No one can know everything. It is possible to spend a lifetime studying history or literature without reading every important book or learning about every significant event. The most we can hope for in the years of formal schooling is that students learn to tell the important from the unimportant; that they know enough about literature to distinguish for themselves what is fine and what is dross; that they know enough about history to inform themselves about the vital connections between the present and the past; that they cultivate a desire to learn more; and that they acquire a foundation of knowledge on which to build for the rest of their lives.

This is a tall order. We do not think it is an impossible order. Nor do we think it is beyond the capacity of our educating institutions. Certainly it is not beyond the capacities of our 17-year-olds.

Vol. 7, Issue 1, Page 56

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