Archives for category: Ignorance

After President-Elect Biden announced his new national security team, a group of experienced, highly competent professionals, Senator Marco Rubio mocked them in a tweet, mostly because they are well-educated. Presumably he’s trying to grab Trump’s mantle as champion of the uneducated.

Brianna Keillor of CNN shredded Rubin’s baloney, pointing out that the Trump administration included many Ivy League graduates, such as Trump, who went to Penn and frequently boasted about his Ivy League credentials. Neither Biden nor Harris are Ivy Leaguers. Marco Rubio of full of baloney, even if it’s shredded.

Polymath Bob Shepherd wonders if our society can survive kakistocracy, the rule of the most ignorant among us. He recalls profoundly dumb things said by Sarah Palin when she ran as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate in 2008. Then came Trump, whose ignorance is profound.

He writes:

Can we survive the likes of Trump?

How well I remember Sarah Palin giving a speech, very shortly after she was chosen as McCain’s running mate, in which she laughed and sneered, outraged, that the government had spent some x amount of dollars studying fruit flies. “Fruit flies!” she exclaimed, as though this were the most insane thing one could imagine.

Of course, this profoundly ignorant person had no idea that much of our understanding of genetics and of genetic disease comes from studies using Drosophila melanogaster. I laughed and laughed that she didn’t know the science she might have learned from a third grader’s Scholastic Weekly Reader. Such profound ignorance. But then, horrified, I saw John McCain pick up the same talking point the week following, and I thought: well, here we are. We are on the cusp of the most significant change in the history of life on Earth, when we eliminate genetic disease and then people start taking evolution into their own hands and it becomes, for the first time, TELEOLOGICAL (purposefully engineered/directed by us). The consequences of the latter will be profound beyond any current reckoning. It changes the basic rules that have always held.

And this is happening at a time when our politicians, at the highest levels, don’t know even the most basic science.
All this was prelude to Donald Trump, the stable genius who thinks that we should nuke hurricanes, that climate change is just weather, that we could send astronauts to the sun, that Alabama is in danger from hurricanes skirting the East Coast, that windmills and low-energy light bulbs cause cancer, that stealth planes are actually invisible, that a dementia diagnostic is a test of general intelligence, that we need to return to using asbestos in our buildings, that HIV and HPV are the same thing, that the primary cause of California wildfires is bad forest management, that coal and natural gas are “clean energy,” that “the ice caps” are “at a record level,” that global warming is a hoax invented to reduce U.S. competitiveness with China, that we are better off without federal regulation of pollutants of air and water, that exercise needs to be avoided because it uses up energy, and that injecting disinfectant might be a great way to treat Covid19. But remember that Trump has told us that “nobody knows technology like Donald Trump,” and that he is on top of “the cyber.”

So, this raises a question: Why do Americans elect to high office such ignorant people? the Sarah Palins and Matt Gaetzes and Donald Trumps among us? In dramatic contrast, I read a speech, last year, by Putin in which he talked intelligently, at length, about genetic engineering.

And that raises another question: can we survive this tendency to elect the profoundly ignorant?

Trump has been on a rant about teaching history, despite the fact that his own knowledge of American and world history is limited, possibly non-existent. He wants history to remain as it was taught in textbooks sixty years ago, when he was a student. This would be a white-centered, triumphal story of the American past, where the only blacks ever mentioned were George Washington Carver and (maybe) Booker T. Washington. White men did everything important, and everyone else was subservient and missing.

Like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, Trump is outraged by the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which begins with the arrival of the first African slaves on the shores of what was eventually to become the United States. Senator Cotton has proposed withdrawing federal funds for the teaching of this revisionist view of American history.

Trump wants to go farther and threatens to withdraw federal funding from any school or district that teaches the history described in the 1619 Project. Trump and Attorney General Barr insist that there is no systemic racism in the United States.

Trump read a tweet warning that the schools of California were using the 1619 Project and he said the Department of Education would investigate and suspend federal funding if it were true. He undoubtedly doesn’t know that the State Board of Education in Texas approved an African-American studies course last April

Trump is abysmally ignorant and hopelessly racist. We already knew that. In addition, he is threatening to break the law. There is a federal law specifically prohibiting any interference by any federal official in curriculum or instruction in any school. As we know, Trump believes he is above the law and can do “whatever he wants.”But 20 USC 1232a prohibits “any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…”

Glen Brown, retired teacher in Illinois, suggests that Trump’s ignorance has had real consequences. In fact, it is dangerous and has contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Brown has maintained a running roll of actions Trump has taken to avoid controlling the coronavirus, updated to mid-August 2020.

Check with Worldometer for the latest count of cases and deaths. Here are the world data. The U.S. has consistently accounted for about one-quarter of all the world’s infections. Maybe one day, as Trump claims, the disease will magically disappear, but it hasn’t happened yet.

This story appeared in the Washington Post. This refusal to follow medical advice will continue to spread the disease and cause unnecessary deaths. The world is watching our rudderless response to the pandemic and feeling sorry for us. Why ask a doctor for her best advice in a dire situation and then ignore it?

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) said Monday that he has no plans to close bars and curb indoor dining — minutes after White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx recommended those measures at a joint news conference with the governor.

Saying that the coronavirus situation in Tennessee was at an “inflection point,” Birx said Monday that diligence and targeted business restrictions statewide could have an effect on a par with a stay-at-home order.

“We can change the future of this virus in this state today,” she said. “If we continue to social-distance, if every mayor throughout this great state would mandate masks, close the bars and substantially increase indoor dining distancing, together we can get through this.”

But when Lee took the microphone later, he said there are currently no plans to close bars or limit dining. Some mayors can shutter businesses on their own, but the vast majority of Tennessee’s county health departments fall under Lee’s purview, the Tennessean reports.

“I’ve said from the very beginning of this pandemic that there’s nothing off the table,” Lee said after a reporter brought up the issue. “I’ve also said that we are not going to close the economy back down, and we are not going to.”

“But I appreciate their recommendations and we take them seriously,” he said, after thanking Birx for visiting his state and saying there were “productive meetings” about education plans and strategies to encourage mask-wearing, among other topics.

Lee has also declined to issue a statewide mask order, though he promoted their effectiveness Monday, and Birx said Monday that she believes the governor has a “sound strategy” and supports local officials taking the lead. Birx appealed to the mayors of rural counties in particular to mandate face coverings, saying that a majority of counties in Tennessee require them but that “we need 100 percent.”

On another front in the battle against COVID-19, the head of Baltimore’s Intensive Care Unit died of the virus.

Joseph J. Costa, chief of the hospital’s Critical Care Division, died about 4:45 a.m. Saturday in the same ICU he supervised. He was attended by his partner of 28 years and about 20 staff members, who placed their hands on him as he died. Costa was 56.

Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia has boldly asserted his claim to be the dumbest governor in the nation. This makes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis very unhappy, as he claims that title.

Kemp suspended all local laws and orders that mandate mask-wearing as the number of coronavirus cases rise in Georgia. He “encouraged” people to wear masks, but no mandates permitted.

Bob Shepherd explains why Florida is miffed:

 

FROM: the law offices of A. Wayne Kerr, Esq.

TO: The State of Georgia

OK. We here in Flor-uh-duh are not happy. We’ve spent years, literally, building our reputation as the dumbest state in the union. We’ve built rope swings over pits of alligators. We’ve worn “Seriously, I have drugs” T-shirts when we were carrying drugs. We’ve organized people to shoot down hurricanes. We’ve claimed in court that we weren’t drinking and driving because we only swigged alcohol at stop signs. We’ve committed criminal assault with fried chicken. We’ve passed resolutions banning Satan from our towns. We’ve committed armed robbery with transparent bags on our heads. We’ve elected Ron DeSantis our governor. We’ve passed stand your ground laws. We’ve driven on highways with a “Car in Toe” sign in the back window. And we’ve issued an order to open all our schools to full in-person instruction on the very day that we set a national record for new cases of Covid-19.

In short, we have worked extremely hard to build the brand of Flor-uh-duh Man. Now, the state of Georgia thinks it can capriciously encroach on our brand by rescinding its order to wear masks in public during the pandemic. This cannot stand. Please cease and desist from further stupid.

Thank you.

Trump demanded that schools reopen for in-person instruction in a few weeks, as the pandemic surges in more than half the states. He and his party have refused to pass the HEROES act to provide additional resources for schools.

DeVos blasted school districts that hesitate to open, fearing risk to students and staff. She said, patronizingly, that life has many risks: get over it.

THE ANSWER IS NO! TRUMP AND DEVOS ARE WILLING TO SACRIFICE LIVES TO RESTART THE ECONOMY! NO!

Trump doesn’t care about the lives of students and staff. He cares only about his poll numbers. DeVos is arrogant and doesn’t care what might happen to students and teachers and other staff in public schools. She never has.

Opening schools without elaborate and carefully planned protocols for testing, daily screenings, masks, small classes, and social distancing is insane.

Opening schools in the middle of a raging and uncontrolled pandemic is irresponsible. Whose loves will be sacrificed?

What example has Trump set by refusing to wear a mask? Didn’t he just falsely claim that 99% of COVID infections are “totally harmless”?

DO NOT OPEN—DO NOT EVEN THINK OF OPENING—UNLESS EVERYONE IS SAFE, STAFF AND STUDENTS ALIKE.

CORONAVIRUS IS DANGEROUS. IT IS NOT LIKE THE COMMON COLD.

President Trump on Tuesday dialed up pressure on state and local authorities to reopen schools, even as coronavirus cases spike, accusing officials who keep them closed as being motivated by politics.


He said in-person education was essential for the well-being of students, parents and the country as a whole, and he vowed to keep up the pressure on governors to open buildings.
“We want to reopen the schools,” Trump said. “We don’t want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons. They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep schools closed. No way.”


The president did not mention that his own reelection prospects may depend on whether voters see the country as having recovered from the economic and social devastation of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It’s also unclear whether the schools push will be a political winner for Trump.

Some parents are eager to return to normal but many others, fearful of the virus, have told districts they want to keep their children home this fall.


Virtually every K-12 school in the United States closed this spring in an effort to control infections, abruptly moving to online learning.

The system worked reasonably well for some families in some school districts but was an outright failure in others.

Colleges and universities also shut down, though their remote learning was generally seen as more successful.
Now schools at all levels are struggling to develop plans for the fall, with many planning a mix of in-person and online classes…

During an afternoon dialogue at the White House, federal, state and local officials made the case for in-person schooling, saying it was imperative for the education and social-emotional well-being of children, and critical for parents who need to go to work.

They noted that schools provide children with meals, mental health counseling and socialization.
“Parents have to get back to the factory. They’ve got to get back to the job site. They have to get back to the office. And part of that is their kids, knowing their kids are taken care of,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.


Children, officials added, are far less likely to become ill and die of the virus than older people, though little was said about the teachers and staff who might be at risk.
“We cannot simply focus on virus containment at the expense of everything else,” said Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at HHS.


The confidence projected from the White House stood in contrast with the angst in many local districts working to develop plans for the fall. Most big cities and many others are developing hybrid models that alternate days in the building and days at home to minimize the number of students present at any given time.



Those models are being developed in part to comply with guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends “enhanced social distancing” in buildings. For instance, the CDC recommends that desks be placed at least six feet apart, something that might not be possible if all students are on site.


Administration officials did not address these hybrid plans directly, though Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that schools “must fully reopen and fully operate this school year.”


One guest, Patrick Daly, principal of St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma, Calif., said he plans a hybrid system, where students learn from home on certain days. Trump replied that he hoped the school could be in-person full time.

“I know you want to try,” he said.
CDC Director Robert Redfield noted that the agency never recommended that schools close in the first place. And he appeared concerned that his agency’s guidance has made districts reticent to open.
“Nothing would cause me greater sadness” than learning that schools view the guidance as reason not to open, he said.


Schools can safely reopen if they arrange for appropriate social distancing, face coverings and strong personal hygiene including hand-washing, Azar said.

He and some other administration officials were seen wearing masks at the White House, something the president has resisted.


Making his case for a return to normal, Trump repeatedly played down the rising number of coronavirus cases, saying treatments and vaccines are coming soon. He said there are only more cases because the country is doing more testing, a point health experts dispute.

Politico reported on a phone call that DeVos had with the governors, in which she demanded that schools reopen and ignore the risks.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia responded:

“The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos when it comes to what is best for students,” said Lily Eskelsen García, National Education Association president. “Trump has not once proven credible, compassionate or thoughtful when it comes to this pandemic.”

The White House is hammering a message of reopening schools even as coronavirus cases spike throughout the country, insisting it’s okay to move ahead and that decisions last spring to close doors came from states rather than health experts at the CDC.

Ignore them. They don’t care about human life. They care about the stock market and the election.

Ignorance is usually not a good defense when you get caught. In Trump’s case, it is the default response when things go wrong.

You could write a book about what Trump doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that Greenland is not for sale. He doesn’t know that Finland is not part of Russia. He doesn’t know that Frederick Douglass is a historical figure, not someone living today. He doesn’t know that climate change is real and dangerous to the planet. There are so many things that he never learned in school or in his adult life.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post figured out that the White House now uses “he didn’t know” as an all-purpose excuse. When the story about Russians paying a bounty for dead American and coalition forces in Afghanistan was published, the White House defense was that no one told Trump. Long ago, this was called “plausible deniability.” In the case of Trump, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that he didn’t know. What he thinks he knows is wrong (hydrochoroquine does not cure COVID-19, drinking disinfectants does not prevent getting the disease, windmills do not cause cancer, the pandemic is not over, etc.).

Milbank writes:

If things weren’t already bad enough for President Trump — economic collapse, botched pandemic response, mass unrest — U.S. intelligence believes Trump’s “friend” Vladimir Putin paid Taliban fighters bounties to kill U.S. troops.

But the White House is ready with a defense: The president has no earthly idea what’s going on.
Totally in the dark.

Not a clue!

“The CIA director, NSA, national security adviser, and the chief of staff can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice president were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declared at Monday afternoon’s briefing.

So, asked NBC’s Kristen Welker, Trump was kept “out of the loop by his own intelligence community?”

“It would not be elevated to the president until it was verified,” the press secretary explained.

Shouldn’t the president have been told about such a serious matter?

“There are dissenting opinions,” McEnany ventured.

Reporters pointed out that intelligence, by definition, is generally unverified, and that the bounty intelligence was solid enough that U.S. officials shared it with the British.

McEnany indicated Trump’s advisers didn’t find it “necessary” to brief him.

But “given these reports,” asked Jeff Mason of Reuters, “does the president have a specific message for Moscow?”

“No,” McEnany said, “because he has not been briefed.”

In fact, McEnany suggested, Trump still hadn’t been briefed on the Russian bounties by Monday afternoon, even though administration officials were, at that hour, briefing lawmakers.

Previous presidents have claimed not to have been briefed about things they shouldn’t have known about, as when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush claimed he was “out of the loop” on the Iran-contra affair during the 1980s. But this is quite unusual: The White House insisting the president was out of the loop on something he should have known about. It’s as though Trump’s ignorance is a point of pride.

The out-to-lunch excuse has been getting more use as things get worse for Trump. On Sunday, Trump shared a video in which a man chanting “white power” (Trump’s tweet thanked the “great people” in the video) and deleted it only after an outcry that included Republicans. McEnany claimed Trump “did not hear that particular phrase” when he watched the video.

By Trump’s own account, he was kept in the dark by China on the coronavirus. He was oblivious to the significance of Juneteenth or of Tulsa when he scheduled a campaign rally on that day in that city. And John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser says Trump was unaware of many things, including Britain’s status as a nuclear power.

Ignorance may be the only bliss for Trump as his presidency dissolves into failures. As other countries keep the coronavirus in check, states that followed Trump’s encouragement to reopen early — Florida, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina — are seeing record levels of infections. His allies are calling for a campaign shakeup as polls show the unpopular president trailing Democrat Joe Biden by nearly 10 points.

His rally in Tulsa was a debacle. His dalliances with white supremacists (McEnany declined Monday to disavow the display of Confederate battle flags at Trump rallies) has galvanized the opposition. Bolton revealed that Trump sought reelection help from China. And now, Russians have apparently put bounties on the heads of U.S. troops.
McEnany opened her briefing with a statement decrying “anarchy in our streets,” “chaos,” “shootings,” “rioting,” “domestic terrorism” and “rampant destruction.” Standing against anarchy, she said, “is President Trump’s vision for the future.”
That’s quite a reelection pitch.
But, in one sense, McEnany has a point about anarchy: When it comes to the nation’s troubles, our head of state is MIA.
Trump’s own secretary of health and human services is saying the “window is closing” to get control of the situation — but Trump’s spokeswoman says that “we’re encouraged to see that fatalities are coming down” and that mask wearing should be a “personal choice.”

Okay, so Trump isn’t going to act to stop the virus’s resurgence. How about action to stop Russia from paying for the killing of U.S. troops?

“The president is briefed on verified intelligence,” McEnany said.

“If he hasn’t been briefed,” the Dallas Morning News’s Todd Gillman asked, “how is he certain that Russia didn’t put out these bounties?”

The press secretary replied by condemning the “absolutely irresponsible decision of the New York Times to falsely report that he was briefed on something that he in fact was not briefed on.”

How dare the Times report that Trump was informed! Get it right: This president’s ignorance is total — and you can quote the White House press secretary on that.

My favorite Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank summarizes where our “leaders” are in responding to the global pandemic. No wonder the EU won’t allow Americans to enter its borders.

Sen. Rand Paul doesn’t much care what Anthony Fauci has to say. The Kentucky Republican gets his public health advice from Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek, the Austrian-born economist and libertarian hero, died in 1992. But Paul, an ophthalmologist before he took up politics, still takes medical guidance from the 20th-century philosopher.

“Hayek had it right!” Paul proclaimed at Tuesday’s Senate health committee hearing on the coronavirus pandemic.

“Only decentralized power and decision-making based on millions of individualized situations can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”

Paul focused his wrath on Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease official. “Virtually every day we seem to hear from you things we can’t do,” Paul complained. “All I hear is, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, we can’t play baseball.”

Fauci assured Paul that “I never said we can’t play a certain sport.”

Unsatisfied, Paul demanded: “We just need more optimism.”

So that’s what we need. The United States is hitting new records for infection, largely because President Trump and allied governors across the South and Southwest ignored public health guidance. While other countries beat back the virus, we’re on course to have 100,000 new cases a day, Fauci said, and doing little about it. But we just need to be more upbeat!

Not for the first time, it feels as though 21st-century America is 14th-century Europe, reacting with all manner of useless countermeasures to the plague: balancing ill “humors” and dispelling evil “vapors” caused by planetary misalignment, religious marches and public self-flagellation, cures involving live chickens and unicorns, and the wearing of amulets and reciting of “abracadabra.”

Now, we have science to tell us how to beat the coronavirus — with face masks and social distancing. Yet our response is resolutely medieval.

The president ridicules mask wearing as politically correct and unmanly. His campaign staff tears down social distancing signs at his mass rally. Governors of hard-hit states tamper with data, sideline public health experts and blame the spread on Latino farmworkers, civil rights demonstrations and increased testing — anything but their reckless and premature relaxing of restrictions.

And then there’s Vice President Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force. “I’d just encourage every American to continue to pray,” he said at Friday’s task force briefing.

I’m all for prayer. But prayer without face masks won’t defeat the virus.

“The attitude of pushing back from authority and pushing back on scientific data is very concerning,” Fauci told senators Tuesday, bemoaning a “lack of trust” in government. “We’re in the middle of a catastrophic outbreak and we really do need to be guided by scientific principles.”

A lack of urgency about the virus caused the testing debacle. A lack of regard for science caused the hydroxychloroquine debacle. A contempt for public health advice caused the reopening debacle. A president’s vanity caused the anti-face-mask debacle. An immunology debacle likely comes next: If Trump rushes out a vaccine before the election, would anybody believe it’s safe?

Belatedly, more than a dozen states have paused or scaled back their rash plans to reopen without heeding public health guidance. But we still have the White House proclaiming “remarkable progress” against the pandemic because the latest victims are younger — as though they won’t infect the old and the sick. Trump insists he wasn’t joking when he said he told health officials to “slow the testing down” to suppress the number of reported cases. He’s proceeding with plans for an in-person, mask-optional convention in Florida, now a virus hot spot.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blames street protests (even though New York, Washington and Minneapolis experienced no such surge in cases) and “overwhelmingly Hispanic” workers, and as cases spiked last week, he claimed that “nothing has changed.” Like other GOP governors and the Trump administration, he also blames an increase in testing — which doesn’t explain the higher rate of positive tests.

Pence, too, rejects the obvious conclusion that “the reopening has to do with what we’re seeing” in the viral spread. (It’s the evil vapors!) He said Sunday that it’s a “good idea” to wear face masks — just after attending a church event at which half the 2,200 people, including the choir, eschewed masks.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring, urged Trump to “occasionally wear a mask” so his admirers “would follow his lead and help end this political debate.”

But neither Alexander’s pleadings, nor those of the various health officials testifying, are likely to break down America’s medieval resistance to science. Paul, citing the successful reopening of schools in Europe, demanded U.S. schools reopen (ignoring that Europe has contained the virus). Invoking the superiority of Hayek’s theories to the findings of public health officials, Paul said “we shouldn’t presume that a group of experts somehow knows what’s best.”

I invited Paul Horton, a history teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, to write on the topic, “Why study history?” He wrote this essay.

Betsy Devos’ War on History is Just Another Trip to Fantasyland

Without history we are lost. Without history we are disconnected, thrown into limitless space and time that has no ground or purpose. Learning history is central to learning individual identity and how that individual identity fits into a larger picture or purpose.

Up until the “age of mechanical reproduction,” to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, history was passed from generation to generation in the form of face to face storytelling. The griot, the elder, or grandma and grandpa, wove meaning into the telling of family and human history. The storyteller wove the individual, family, and human stories together into a fabric or pattern of meaning, into a place and a purpose. The teleology of the individual became a part of a fabric of a larger human story that had beginning and ending points with a purpose.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as storytelling has been largely lost in an endless sea of competing narratives and digital noise, we are losing our sense of the past. To be sure, academic and popular historians continue to pen compelling narratives, insisting that narrative storytelling is not a lost art. But, as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has demonstrated, fewer and fewer students read books, and the required history books that they do read are neither compelling narratives nor accurate depictions of national or global pasts.

In the United States, history texts are censored to cut objectionable social and political history at the behest of conservative state school boards in the South who seek to restrict “critical thinking.” As more and more Americans become more concerned with their “white identity,”(Jardina, White Identity Politics, 2019) Western Civilization and European History courses are making a big comeback to seize ground in curricula, displacing recently added World or Global History courses that make use of the best contemporary research.

History has been demoted in the curriculum to a step-cousin of literacy, standardized testing, the so-called “Advanced” Placement course, and, in its most current iteration, an instrument of propaganda designed to promote a whitewashed American exceptionalism that folds neatly into Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Dutch Reformed version of providential history, a history dominated by those like her who have received grace and have been rewarded as “visible saints” and who see themselves charged with rebuilding the great Puritan “city upon a hill.”

DeVos has used the decline in History and Civics scores on the 2019 NAEP to discredit public education and “government schools,” but she does not know what she is talking about as usual. (see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/04/23/betsy-devos-calls-low-history-civics-marks-stark-inexcusable-are-naep-scores-worth-fretting/ )

As the NAEP has also made abundantly clear, students are reading less and they are not reading books and narratives. If DeVos or her predecessor, Arne Duncan for that matter, were to ask history teachers what the problem was, the history teachers would point to the problem of digital learning or the coming of the “igeneration.” Students who have grown up with iphones have shorter attention spans, give less attention to detail and context, as reading degenerates into scanning. The prevalence of scanning rather than has made students more resistant to reading for understanding and analysis. According to studies conducted by Sam Wineburg and his colleagues at Stanford History Education Geoup, the average students’ ability to critically analyze historical texts is abysmal (see article linked above).

Secondly, as popular historian David McCullough has long contended, most history textbooks are so dull and watered down that students hate to read them. Because much of what students want to learn is deleted by conservative state schoolboard watchdogs, students correctly liken reading these books to eating a thin, tasteless gruel. The compelling narrative histories of Joy Hakim offer an exemplar of history writing that should be used at every grade level.

Thirdly, standardized testing has effectively consigned the acquisition of meaningful and enriching historical narratives to the dustbin of history. With the coming of the punitive No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Every Child Succeeds Acts under Bush II and Obama, narrative histories have been pulverized into standardized test item data points that are separated from meaningful context. The Common Core Standards, as implemented during the Obama administration, emphasize basic reading literacy skills measured by multiple choice tests or basic regurgitation short essays that repeat the same words and phrases that are graded by algorithms.

Rather than reading narrative histories and novels, students read selected historical documents. The problem with this emphasis is that it borrows from the outdated New Criticism approach that fails to connect documents to broader contexts. Historical thinking requires a constant analysis of the connection between the document and context. This is where Sam Wineburg and his Stanford History Education group fall short. For example, Common Core lessons developed as a model of how the Gettysburg Address should be taught does not consider the broader contexts during the Civil War and American society when the address was penned. (see Horton, “Common Core and the Gettysburg Address,” Education Week, Nov. 21, 2013)

Moreover, The Common Core revision of the American Social Studies curriculum, C3, makes a similar mistake. The curriculum deemphasizes history in favor of the social sciences (History makes up 70% of the required high school curriculum), and it emphasizes the Document based question. This is not in itself bad, but DBQs need to be done right. Here the DBQ Project that originated in Evanston, Illinois High School, is far superior to the materials produced by the Stanford History Education group in providing narrative contexts for the analysis of documents. Again, what is missing from C3 is the vital importance of narrative reading research papers of varying lengths. Any historian will tell you that analysis of documents must be pieced together into a sustained and coherent argument that connects documents to broader contexts and interpretations. Critical analytical thinking is the product of this process. (see, Paul Horton, “History Matters: The C3 Social Studies Standards are Fool’s Gold,” Education Week, Jan. 16, 2014)

A former student who helps program Amazon robots for Amazon warehouses told me that she learned how to think and solve problems from my history class that used this constant analysis of going back and forth between document and context to weigh proximate cause and pattern recognition issues. Teaching authentic history is teaching thinking skills that can be applied to any problem. Is it a coincidence that so many lawyers are history majors?

Fourthly, standardized testing for literacy pushes history and social studies to the margins of the curriculum. As testing for basic literacy became used to score the performance of teachers and schools, the teaching of history was deemphasized. Principals predictably moved all of their resources to training that would raise reading comprehension scores. This required making use of Common Core materials that did not make use of historical narratives, and that focused on discrete documents severed from a broader picture as noted above. As the former Direction of the National Council for History Education in Illinois, I received many complaints from History teachers across the state that indicated that History departments in middle and highs schools were dropping history courses and combining English and Social Studies Departments. A preservice History Teaching Professor at Western Illinois University complained that “because History is not tested” as a part of the recent Common Core testing regime “it really did not matter.” This is certainly what many building principals were thinks as they moved resources and teaching assignments away from Social Studies and History departments. I have no doubt that this phenomenon of resource depletion was a common pattern across the country in recent years.

Finally, at the upper end of the high school curriculum, I would argue that AP History testing has played a huge role in diminishing the learning of History. Although the AP History courses have been redesigned recently, the emphasis on standardized multiple-choice regurgitation on 50% of the test items (that up until a few years ago set the mean for subjective portions of the tests) again emphasizes data points over thinking and interpretation. I was a very successful AP History teacher at several schools as my students achieved very high average scores on their tests. But, as I became a grader and began to talk about the tests with teachers from around the country and the world, my enthusiasm for the AP program diminished considerably. Most teachers reported that after cramming for the AP tests their students did not appreciate any intrinsic value in studying history and that the long-term impact of cramming and regurgitation registered little retention in long-term memory. The biggest problem with AP is that students learn to view the History course as something with transactional rather than intrinsic value. Students take the course and the tests to earn scores to test out of required survey history courses in college. This process demeans the value of history as something important to learn. Significantly, excellent college courses in history are not taken by many of our most capable students who are more worried about organic chemistry and finance. Harvard Historian Jill Leplore reports that when parents find out their students have signed up for history, “their parents tell them to run away.”

The biggest single problem with AP is that building Principals like to up the metrics of AP enrollment in their schools to boost their school’s reputation. This sounds good for district and school PR, but problems abound with this approach. We see it on the grading end where graders routinely find folders containing twenty-five blue books that score 0 because the students taking the test don’t write more than a sentence or two, leaving the rest of the blue-book blank. The problem is that many of the students selected into AP classes lack the reading skills to master History at the AP level, there are not enough History teachers who are trained to teach the AP adequately, and that the course is to rapidly paced and requires too much regurgitation.

History is plainly in crisis in this country, but not because “government schools” are bad as DeVos claims. At the broadest cultural level, the Humanities are under attack and have been defunded at all levels in favor of utilitarian ideas about finding a vocation. When a corporate and American Academy for the Arts and Sciences sponsored commission issued a report that recommended twelve principles for the teaching of the Humanities and the Social Sciences was issued several years ago called “The Heart of the Matter,” the report embraced the Common Core Standards as a necessary foundation for Humanities and Social Science education. The signatories apparently did not understand that the Common Core Standards were coupled with a standardized testing regime that diminished the very values that its authors sought to valorize.

If we are to save history in the United States, or at least increase NAEP scores, we must replace standardized testing with Project based learning, exciting narrative reading, and essay and paper writing. While document analysis is at the core of historical thinking, that analysis must be subsumed within the reading of compelling narrative histories that tell the exciting and engaging stories that all students love to read. Students need to work on history projects that “light the history flame” rather than regurgitate tired, discrete, meaningless facts. Students love stories and we need to get back to history as storytelling, history that cannot be reduced to multiple choice test items or computer graded essays.

We are clearly adrift in the United States. We are lost and we are facing several existential crises at once. In the words of novelist-historian Kurt Andersen, we have entered “Fantasyland.” “The American experiment” according to Andersen, “the original embodiment of the Great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America, those exciting parts of the Enlightenment have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”

But, says Andersen, “Little by little for centuries, then more and more faster and faster during the last half century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.” (Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History, p.5)

I submit that the crisis of magical ahistorical thinking is every bit as pressing as the crisis of environmental sustainability. Indeed, as the work of J.R. McNeill and so many other environmental historians demonstrate, historical understanding and sustainability go hand and hand. A return to learning history will allow us to better think about how to turn down the heat.