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Taj Mahal and the Lakers

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Several recent studies have warned that baby boomers and their children do not know much history. A colleague of mine points out this dilemma when he muses that we may well be producing a leadership class of the sort that thinks Pizzaro is an Italian fast-food restaurant at the mall~~, or that Taj Mahal plays for the Lakers.

Are we casting up a generation cut off from its past, unable to understand the historic forces breaking against it from all sides? Perhaps. We could wring our hands in desperation, call for vast new government expenditures, or hunker down and pray that some miracle will spare us the ill effects of this creeping callowness. Instead, consider these proposals that might help reverse this trend.

First, historians have a double task. The profession must continue to produce clear and accurate historical work, but also must be willing to get it out to a wider audience. Before the 19th century, much of written history was hagiography, the glorification of some leader, dynasty, national or ethnic group. Often it was the casual repetition of unexamined legends and stories passed between generations with little concern for accuracy of fact or interpretation.

By the turn of the century, historians were insisting on a more exact, even scientific search for data and more dispassionate analysis. Soon it became clear that historians are not machines into which facts are thrust and from which analysis emerges unsullied by cant, confusion, opinion, or bias.

Historians are human beings who all too often struggle without enthusiasm against their own prejudice. The best historical work today involves the meticulous examination of primary documents, periodic re-examination of long-held conclusions, and rigorous debate over interpretation. In the face of declining historical knowledge, historians must continue to do the best scholarly work possible.

At the same time, they must make the results of this effort interesting and arresting to a wider audience. Sweating out scholarly research is just the beginning. Equal energy must be applied to making the results appealing to a mass audience.

This is risky business. On one hand, laying out your work for wider public scrutiny may reveal it as irrelevant or even boring. At the same time, producing history that is not boring is also dangerous. Such an enterprise may invite the disdain of some historians who see the exercise as trivial and themselves as keepers of the holy grail, grumpily fearful lest someone, somewhere enjoy the study of history.

Society as a whole can also help arrest this slide with a couple of fundamental policy adjustments. We must insist that history be an integral part of school curriculum at all levels. No student should be 12 months away from a course in history. We also must devote increased resources to the development of excellent classroom teachers, of all subjects, at all levels.

Remember your best teachers? For me, they were those who stimulated learning instead of simply conveying information. Holliday. Ulmer. Metzger. Rilling. Havran. Their interests ranged from English composition to American show music to the New Testament to history, but they form an archipelago of excellence in a life of study. They were teachers who loved their subject and loved their students. This love was infectious. How do we get more people like that?

One way is to increase the luster and prominence of the profession of teaching. Another way is to remove some of the financial struggle that often discourages our best students from becoming our best teachers. Teachers, who often spend as much or more time preparing for their vocation as their peers in other professions, generally make less money. I propose that those who commit themselves to a life career of classroom teaching, whether in public or private schools, from kindergarten to college, after a period of trial, be allowed to apply for a reduction or elimination of loans taken to pay for their education.

Finally, historical institutions and schools must expand their horizons. The vast majority of our citizens do not attend classroom lectures, no matter how well taught, or read scholarly articles, no matter how brilliant. Unfortunately, few will see museum exhibits, or haunt the aisles of public libraries. Instead, they watch television or shop the malls.

Schools and colleges must seek alliances with those who control access to mass media--newspapers, television, radio, and films--and with them develop creative and entertaining ways of conveying the lessons of the past into the marketplace. In short, we must sally forth in a happy quest to challenge the dogs of ignorance and mediocrity on the fields of popular culture. Why not place museum exhibits on the second floor of the city's most popular shopping mall? Why not history on MTV?

Even with a coordinated effort by these groups, the decline in the knowledge of history could continue, yet the effort is a worthy one. If we arrest this descent, the results will be a better informed society, a more seasoned electorate, and more prudent leaders tempered by a deeper understanding of the past.

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