A friend of mine recently posted a very poignant meme generalizing about the lack of historical comprehension. It went something like this: What if I told you the version of history you were taught in school was heavily revised to favor your own nation’s history while hiding its crimes. And this fosters an unrealistic sense of false patriotism used to manufacture your allegiance.”
There’s a lot of truth to the meme without even getting into conspiracy theories. As the old adage goes, “they who win the war write the history” (or as sometimes Churchill and others are sometimes mis-scredited with, “History is written by the victors.”)
This is generally true of all peoples at all points in history. There’s plenty of logic, and quite a few studies, behind why this “interpretation of the truth” occurs rooted in both psychological and sociological needs within the confines of the human condition. That’s not to say it’s always true, sometimes other party’s histories are retained. But, history itself is nearly always shaded in meaning when you get beyond the dates, places and people of rote memorization. It’s told a certain way for a reason.
The reality is, however, that even beyond the “that’s the nature of history” conversation there’s an underlying point to the meme that suggests we are being systemically lied to another way.
Not to discredit the meme, per se, as I believe it brings up a very important point … but the abridged history that is taught in schools isn’t necessarily intended to be as biased as it might come across. The inherent nature of the education system, in this case US K-12, is to present some foundational information using a limited amount of time and resources, as well as processing power in the childhood and adesolent brain, in order to arrive at fundamental understanding of something.
Simply, you learn what you learn because that’s all that can be taught within the constraints of the system. Not because there’s some grand attempt at intentionally trying to dumb you down.
Did your English classes cover the depth and breath of American English grammar and this variation of it from the Queen’s English and other historic and modern international dialects, or delve into the complexities of each form of literature, or provide reading comprehension at a the assumed grade level? No. Not at all. Most people coming out of a normal English education program have a basic understanding of English, such that according to Institute of Education Sciences and several other studies the average reading comp level is only about the 8th grade, and written grammar falling a grade below that. You’re not leaving school with a command like Shelly or Dickens or Hemmingway, that’s for sure.
When you studied math in school how far did you get? Algebra? Geometry? Stat? Calc? Trig? Did you study math as it relates to engineering or finance? The reality is even if you studied any of these you still only brushed the surface in your understanding. HS Algebra even at the advanced level just about scratches the surface of the actual mathematical knowledgebase within what’s known. And, lets face it, if you did make it all the way to Calc & Trig what you really studied was a handful of basic concepts that formulate the cornerstones and not the full robustness of their theories and applications. You’re not graduating Descartes, or Einstein, or Turring, are you?
If you were fortunate enough to learn an instrument in school, how proficient did you really get? You generally learned the rudimentary aspects of how to read and perform. If you were lucky enough to have a program that covered several genres maybe you were exposed to some aspects of the diversity in “Jazz,” “Classical,” and “Pop” but you got an abridged version of each. So, you can play “When the Saints come Marching In” but it’s never going to sound like Louis Armstrong or Fats Domino.
And, that’s precisely the level of education most history classes achieve as well. Within just human history, the process attempts to cover an overview of something like 50 or so different “civilizations” of the thousands that existed and within that usually only a the primary subset of the civilization’s main cultural norms. Even given the opportunity to zero in on one thing, say US History, the approach has to be a massive glossing over of the sociological, anthropological and historical aspects that interconnect the US to the rest of the world. We cannot expect that the average student is going to come out of school with an intimate understanding of US history and certainly not that they could even hope to comprehend the fullness of so-called “world” history (as the misnomered classes are still sometimes called).
Do I wish history (and English, Math, Music and more) were taught better? Sure. And there are literally reams of data that demonstrate the utter failures of all the educational aspects at work in the US from the public school system, to private and charter institutions, to parochial and religious schools, to the college and university system, to trade institutions to self-education and home schooling. They ALL have ways to fail students for many reasons. But, in most cases (not all) it’s not for lack of trying to succeed.
The reality is there’s only so much that can be squeezed into the best designed curriculum and taught by the best prepared teachers in the best environments with the best resources and learned even by the best of students. Then, there’s all the others that aren’t the best…
I feel obligated to mention the obvious, if such things as English and Math proficiency aren’t there than there’s no way to expect there to be a strong comprehension of History either. Educational subjects generally don’t exist in voids, they are interconnected. If you can only read at an so-called 8th grade level and only have computational processing logic at an 8th grade level than your ability to understand history will be limited to something around an 8th grade level… Wanting better historical compression means having better subject proficiency across the board.
I don’t mean to spam but another very real problem is Dunning-Kruger effect. The foundation of the education system, in the US, is the achievement of certain success benchmarks. Typically thought of as graduation – did you “successfully” apss the mile marker of elementary school, middle school, high school, associates degree, undergraduate degree, masters degree, etc., these benchmarks actually create a false sense of accomplishment.
Due to this, there’s some inherent beliefs that people know more than they really know (just because you graduated HS, for example, doesn’t mean you are proficient at HS level knowledge — the 8th grade reading comp standard for HS graduates is an example that on average, you are not). This leads people to have large blind spots in overestimating what they know and underestimating or not being able to acknowledge what they do not.
You can apply this failure of estimation to nearly any subject, but for the sake of argument here with the meme, someone who has been taught typical abridged history believes that the knowledge base they have is all they do need to know. Their cognitive bias leads them to believe they know enough as is or that what they know is all there is to know which is why they approach the application of history from such a narrow point of view. They have no reason, in their mind, to approach it any other way. Much like learning the “rules” for gammar or solving a math problem, history is a black-and-white statement of dates, times, people and places and little more. While some of this may be based in the “how” history (and other subjects are taught) the reality is undoing the bias would take more than just a wholesale re-imaginging of the education system, it requires an entire sociological shift (the kind which American Culture is currently allergic to: “Believe me, I have the best history. It’s such a history. Win. Win. Win. We’re gonna win so much you’ll get tired of winning. This history will be Very big. Very Big. Yuge. And, you’ll know its history because it’ll be the best history. People say he doesn’t know history. But I know. I know history. Believe me. I have the best people on it. The best. People say that history it doesn’t matter, but it does. and, we will have the best history when i’m done. I know history. Believe me.”).