ANDREA NEAL: Lack of historical knowledge taints public debate

2014-02-19T00:00:00Z ANDREA NEAL: Lack of historical knowledge taints public debateBy Andrea Neal nwitimes.com
February 19, 2014 12:00 am  • 

It’s little wonder that today’s political discourse is polarized. The folks doing most of the arguing know so little about the past that they cannot justify their views with historical evidence or data. So they appeal to emotion, name calling, stereotypes and hyperbole.

Indiana state Sen. Mike Delph used his Twitter account to debate HJR 3, a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman. He was immediately attacked by fellow Tweeters as a hater, a bigot and “delusional.”

Name-calling isn’t new. Look at accounts of the election of 1800 and you’ll find nasty rhetoric from supporters of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams weren’t very nice in 1828 either. What’s new is the complete lack of historic perspective on the part of the name-callers.

In a speech last year, the historian Gary W. Gallagher said, “Ignorance about the American past gets in the way of fruitful public debate about current issues of surpassing importance. This ignorance affects what passes for discussion of politics and other issues on the 24-hour news channels, on the Internet and in newspapers. A shrill tone often dominates in all of these settings, frequently set up by ‘analysis’ that is strikingly uninformed.”

The immigration debate is one such example, he said. On one side, opponents argue that illegal immigrants are an economic drain; on the other side that they are an economic contributor. One side says they take jobs no one else wants; the other side that they take jobs away from U.S. citizens.

“Often lost is awareness that percentages of foreign-born residents are not remarkably high right now,” Gallagher said. During the 1890s, about 15 percent of the U.S. population was born outside the United States. Today the percentage is 12.9. Throughout America history, there have been periods of heavy immigration (the early 1900s, 1910s, and 1990s), but over time numbers rise and fall somewhat cyclically.

This is the kind of knowledge that makes for informed and scholarly debate. But few Americans can claim anything close to historic or civic literacy.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests student knowledge in various subjects every few years. In 2010, only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors were considered grade-level proficient in American history.

Sad to say, both American history and civics education are losing ground in our nation’s schools because neither subject is considered essential by policymakers.

An informed public is the best antidote to polarized and uncivil discourse, yet as Gallagher, and so many others have warned, we are moving in the wrong direction.

Andrea Neal, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis. The opinions are the writer's.

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