What is the purpose of trotting through town, state, US, ancient, US, world, US history in schools? What are we hoping students are going to get out of it? At one time there was a civics argument — future citizens of our nation needed to know the history of democratic ideals, values, and responsibilities so that they would be prepared to vote, sit on juries, make their voices heard in their communities. I am not sure that parents, teachers, and certainly students still believe that. Our past is much more checkered, not the march of democracy. Voting on American Idol captures far more of our national attention then almost any political election. The loudest voices on nearly any issue are extremely well-heeled lobbying groups — the voice of the individual is rarely heard.
I am exaggerating, certainly. This political year has engaged more people, and more young people, than in a long while. Popular culture is always, well, popular — that is nothing new. There is the famous case of Babe Ruth defending the fact that he got paid more than the President by saying, correctly, that he "had a better year."
But even so, I see little evidence that we as Americans really believe that knowledge of history — ours, our neighbors’, the world’s — is necessary to citizenship. We test knowledge of facts we no longer care about, we teach expository writing (supported by three facts), and we completely miss the point.
If history matters, as I believe it does, it is only because it teaches us a way to think — to hunt, study, search, judge, research, formulate theories, and defend them. History gives us an endless field of play to exercise those skills of diligent search and fresh thinking. That is why we need it — and why it does not matter whether we like or dislike the Founding Fathers, whether we study national heroes or expose their feet of clay. The goal is the search — and students do need those skills no matter what history we come to care about today or tomorrow.