Friday, April 1, 2011

The consequences of a boring history class

Newsweek gave the citizenship test to 1000 people. This is the test foreigners must take to become citizens. It isn't require of us who were born here. The result of Newsweek's exploration: 38% failed -- they got less than 60%. Newsweek put 25 questions in the magazine (takers are only required to answer 10 questions randomly chosen from 100). I missed one (Name a writer of the Federalist Papers.) and happened to glance at the answer of one more before fully figuring it out (Who was president during World War I?).

As Andrew Romano explains, Newsweek did this for a reason. Our incuriosity is not new, other countries have outscored us on similar kinds of tests for quite a while. But it is having stronger consequences.

We got into this mess for a couple reasons. One is the complexity of our method of government. Another is the decentralization of our education system. And the third is the high income inequality with insufficient resources devoted to poor areas (something I see in my teaching).

And to the consequences.

We're in a much more connected world. What happens in China (or a Japanese nuclear plant) affects us. What happens in our government affects them. If we are ignorant, we will respond inappropriately. This didn't happen as much when the poor had institutions (such as unions) to look out for them.

Those who are ignorant are easily swayed by activists on either end of the political spectrum. For example, many are worked into a tizzy over aspects of the federal budget that simply aren't true. Cut foreign aid! It is already less than 1% of the budget. Smaller government! But don't touch my Medicare! We're arguing over short-term spending that would make the recovery take longer, if enacted.

What to do? James Fishkin of Stanford has been experimenting with deliberative democracy. Once someone explains the ins-and-outs of a situation, such as the budget (and does so with facts, not party talking points), citizens tend to agree on rational policy. We're ignorant, not stupid.

Niall Ferguson looks at one reason why Americans know so little about our government. History class is boring. It is usually presented as a succession of dry facts with a sense that the way it happened was the only way it could happen. We know that current events have a wide range of possible outcomes -- the terror of the unforeseen -- while we're living in the middle of them.

So how do we liven up history? First, replace phone-book size history books with interactive web content. Second, explore the interesting questions. Why did the American Revolution happen with a lower death toll and prove more enduring than the French Revolution? Why is George Washington's legacy better than Simon Bolivar's? What if the British had supported the Confederacy? What if FDR hadn't been president during WWII? Ah. That could get interesting.

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