America’s future depends on two factors: Responsible decision making now, and training future generations to be responsible decision-makers. Much ink is spilled on the first, little on the second. A quick look at three trends raises concerns about what younger Americans are learning.
First, while distortion, omission, and intentionally wrong-headed thinking – particularly in teaching American history – is increasingly recognized in younger ranks, college and graduate level teaching is also at risk.
Both the quantity and quality of college and graduate level history teaching appears to be under pressure. Thus, according to a survey published by the American Historical Association, “overall student enrollment in undergraduate-level history courses declined at 96 of the 123 academic units (colleges or universities),” and “worryingly, large net declines of 10 percent or more affected 55 of the responding institutions.”
As for quality, other questions surface – which may explain the decline. Broadly, the staple of US and European history is being replaced – or supplemented – by an array of new courses. Leading universities carry courses – by the hundreds – such as “social activism through art,” “food in culture,” “hip hop,” and all manner of irrelevant, irreverent and largely useless courses, under the rubric of history.
Popular courses include: “Gaga for Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity,” “What if Harry Potter is Real,” “How to Win a Beauty Pageant,” “How to Rule the World,” “Psychology and the Simpsons,” “Tree Climbing,” “Getting Dressed,” “The Art of Walking,” “History of Surfing,” “The American Vacation,” “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse,” and “The Chemistry of Beer.” Sparing college names, some are Ivy League.
While most of us learned tree climbing in youth and were acquainted with beer in college, few thought majors in those areas offered hope for future employment. Scrolling back one or two generations, few would have wasted WWII or Korean War GI Bill benefits on such courses.
Falling numbers of those studying history and falling standards are both worrisome trends. If we forget what history is, what parts matter, and how to apply lessons of forward – future decision making will get worse, not better. Maybe this is one reason younger Americans have less fear – or knowledge – of historical concepts like socialism, communism and tyranny, as discussed in Plato’s Republic.
To this, add growing influence of foreign money in US colleges and universities, especially Chinese and other totalitarian state money. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that the US Departments of Justice and Education are investigating a myriad of universities for failure to report foreign contributions – and about time.
China alone appears to have contributed millions to American colleges, encouraging formation – says a 2019 Senate report – of propaganda-pushing “Confucius Institutes” at more than 100 US colleges.
Under rubric of teaching culture, Chinese-government ventures reportedly “compromise academic freedom,” allowing China to control teachers, and block lessons adverse to Chinese interests. An earlier Senate report said China fronted $156 million to these endeavors, creating 519 in “elementary, middle and high schools in the United States.” The Chinese obviously read Homer’s Iliad, taking note of the Trojan Horse.
The Journal cited a 2019 Senate report broadening the threat, assessing “foreign government spending on US schools is effectively a black hole.” Congressional testimony added, “fewer than three percent of 3,700 higher education institutions that receive foreign funding reported … contracts exceeding $250,000.” How many are there?
In short, a second big issue is allowing foreign contributions, especially from China, to influence the tone, tenor and content of American education – what our colleges teach and more ominously what they do not, such as which countries violate human rights, trample democratic norms, and undermine rights from freedom of speech and religion to association and self-defense.
A third trend is more outcome than cause, more concern about where the data leads than why. Americans are beginning to lag in key areas, such as digital literacy. A 2018 US Department of Education study found that, “compared to adults internationally (i.e. in other OECD countries), a smaller proportion of US adults are not digitally literate.”
The problem is bigger than digital literacy. In 2015 – admittedly four years ago – we ranked behind 22 other countries in science proficiency (including Estonia, Finland, Macao, Vietnam, Slovenia, Singapore, Taiwan and more than a dozen other European countries), behind 37 countries in math, 23 in reading.
Unfortunately, as reported in the 2019 “World Top 20 Project,” the US is no longer in the “top 20” best educated countries – at any level. We have become lazy about teaching America’s objective historical exceptionalism – even to ourselves. We accepted foreign influence and money in our educational system. We have become less than stellar in leading areas of fundamental education.
What is the answer? In truth, it is self-evident. First, we must cherish our own American history and exceptionalism – teach it with conviction, pride and resolve. This must happen at every level of education, unafflicted by the modern diseases of anti-American revisionism, political interference, and moral relativism. Truth is truth, and history is history. America’s is worth knowing, teaching and learning. There has never been a country like America – ever.
Second, as the Trump Administration is doing, we must create accountability in higher education, wringing foreign money and influence out of American universities, restoring open, democratic and unadulterated academic inquiry. Foreign politics do not belong in American education.
Third, tying quality of teaching history to other disciplines, we must stop pretending history is tree climbing, rock bands, surfing or getting dressed; we must stop imagining useful knowledge is gained by ignoring the fundamentals of science, math, engineering, literature and history.
We must resolve to be the best, as we have before been – and begin to practice another all-American trait, one that brought us from our founding to now, pulled us through two world wars, made us the top economy in the world: Hard work. Once we know the score and resolve again to put points on the board, nothing will stop us. That’s a historical fact, one worth remembering.