By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
About a month ago, Salon.com ran a video/story that depicted today’s college students in a pretty negative light. As explained in the short article beneath the video, a group of politically active students went around Texas Tech University asking their classmates simple questions about American history. ‘Who won the Civil War’, ‘Who did America gain it’s independence from?’, ‘When did we gain our independence?’ and ‘Who is the Vice President of the US?’ were a couple of these softballs. It wouldn’t be newsworthy if the students answered correctly, so you can guess how they responded. In the hyperbolic language of the Facebook scroll, Salon by-lined the video by warning it’s readers that it would be ‘the most terrifying thing you will see today’.
Now as a history teacher, I am appalled that any American over the age 12, much less college students, would not know these simple facts. But I try to keep an important point in mind: This video is edited to peddle the groups’ agenda. As Stephen Colbert illustrated in his mocking of a similar series of videos done by Fox News, you really need to take these experiments with a grain of salt. People seem to love laughing at their fellow citizens’ ignorance, so, of course, you only see the most blatantly absurd respondents. But how many of the people asked these questions actually know the answers (what percentage is that?), and hence, don’t get on camera, compared to the ones who did not know the answers (the minority?). We never will get the true numbers, and so we are left believing Americans are the most laughably ignorant of people.
And it is comedic. The students and Bill O’Reilly have political points to make, but as far as I know, Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show’ was the first to really practice these question/answer sessions with unsuspecting strangers. His cringe-worthy experiment of interviewing ignorant Americans has been taken up recently by Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. Interestingly though, the fact that these skits are so popular and funny illustrate an important paradox. The audience find humor in these videos because we understand how absurd it is to not know these facts; in other words, the majority of the audience know the right answer to these questions, and can laugh at those who do not. If the audience was similarly clueless as the interviewees, these videos wouldn’t be entertaining.
So, these videos are no big whoop, right? Not so fast! As I ponder these interviews, I find something much more disturbing than the obliviousness of a couple poor rubes. I ask myself: Why is it a sign of historical intelligence to simply restate facts? Why do millions of viewers believe knowing trivia makes you ‘smart’, or well-versed in history? What is the end-game here?
These videos hint at a much more important issue; the ignorance of the interviewees are not nearly as troubling as the assumptions made by the questioners, and thus, their audience. Jimmy Kimmel and the sunglass-wearing college girl asking questions are only symptomatic of our education culture. Their concern with rote memorization and trivial fact retention are central to our education system, where test results are all that matter. These results have come at the expense of understanding larger processes. We ask, ‘what were your test scores’. We rarely ask, ‘do you actually understand the subject that you were tested upon?’
In the study of history, such quantification of ‘knowledge’ is inherently destructive. When history results are graphed by the number of facts you can remember, the meaning of the subject has lost it’s central importance. Think about it: If these kids knew who won the Civil War, would it be all that edifying in regards to their knowledge regarding the event? If they could identify a picture of James Madison, would that tell us anything in regards to their ability to be good ‘citizens’? This seems to be the notion behind such recorded questionnaires. If you can recognize Madison, if you can say who won the Civil War, if you can identify what country America gained independence from, then you are one of the enlightened, and our education system is working. But, this is a ridiculous assumption. Rote memorization or facial recognition does little to illustrate your understanding of a topic.
I have an anecdote I like to tell my students that illustrates my point.
I took American history in 11th grade. My history teacher was fine. He was funny, and likable. But, his notions of what proved your knowledge of history was sometimes questionable. For instance, in his course, each student was required to memorize an important speech that shaped American History. Like many others, I recited the Gettysburg Address. One day, I sat at his desk and repeated verbatim the words of Lincoln’s revolutionary 2 minute masterpiece. I did this with no hesitation, and knew every word, and hence, I received an A on the assignment. Repetition was the only thing necessary for memorization. Memorization was the only thing necessary for an A.
Though I was able to repeat Lincoln’s political poetry back word for word, I actually gained no understanding as to why the words were so important! My teacher never dealt with WHY Lincoln’s call for a ‘second birth of freedom’ was radical in comparison to the first ‘four score and seven years’ of the American Republic. For that A, I recited each word robotically. I was asked to be an automaton, and automatons don’t make ‘good citizens’. Not until college did I realize that history is not only about the who, what and when questions. The litany of facts mean little compared to understanding the larger concerns: HOW and WHY. Like so many American school kids, I rarely got either.
This is why if I had a student who showed up on one of Jimmy Kimmel’s or Bill O’Reilly’s videos, I wouldn’t really care if they could not tell you when the Civil War ended. But, I would hope beyond hope that he would be able to explain to the interviewer why it was fought. I am sure such critical explication wouldn’t make for the greatest news blurb for viewers to laughingly cringe at, but it would be much more telling of the interviewee’s knowledge.