No, They’re Not Just Factoids

My apologies for not posting Wednesday–the day was longer than the time allotted.

Anyway, so a study was recently done on how many American colleges required history, government, or economic courses in their curricula. The numbers were far smaller than they need to be–less than 1/5 required history courses, and the numbers only got smaller from there.

If you look at the linked article, there’s also a chart detailing how many American adults could answer two questions–which President enacted the New Deal and when D-Day occurred–correctly. The answer was, less than 50% for the latter and 50% for the former.

This has elicited another round of criticism of American higher education for failing to teach students such information, and calls for a re-emphasis both on core curricula and American, as opposed to world, history, or, worse, diversity courses. This has resulted in the usual pushback by the people who enacted such ideas, as well as the usual suspects who come out of the woodwork whenever a survey comes out revealing the risible amount of knowledge most Americans have about their government claiming that “It doesn’t matter! This is trivia! What’s more important is that people understand concepts and trends!”


Here’s what I mean. I will grant that knowing that Franklin D. Roosevelt oversaw the New Deal and that D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944 are not necessary to lead a fulfilled life. However, I would say that, if you don’t know these things, you probably don’t know a whole lot else about those eras, because of the way history is remembered. People remember significant people and important dates much more than “concepts” and “trends,” mostly because the former two are concrete, while the latter two are much more nebulous.

So, in other words, if you don’t know who enacted the New Deal, you probably don’t get why the New Deal was such a big deal. If you don’t know when D-Day was, you probably don’t know why it was important to world history. Hint: the New Deal probably kept the USA from sliding into political revolution, and D-Day initiated the liberation of the northern sections of continental Europe from the Nazis, and kept the Soviets from being the ones who did it–and yes, that was important.

Furthermore, I would go so far as to say that if you don’t know dates you don’t understand the chronology of things, and are unprepared to explain how events lead to each other–specifically, how long or short a time it takes for important things to occur.

For instance, take the Civil Rights Movement. The way most people think of it runs something like this: Brown v. Board of Education, Birmingham protests, 1964 Civil Rights Act, MLK assassinated. And if you didn’t know the dates, you’d think all of these happened one after the other in quick succession. Reality: Brown v. Board happened in 1955, the Birmingham protests happened in 1962, the 1964 Civil Rights act in–1964, and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Just looking at the dates should cause some interesting questions. What happened in the 7 years between Brown v. Board and Birmingham? Why was MLK assassinated four years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act? And while it might not bring up those questions, let me be blunt here: if you didn’t know the dates, you’d never think to ask.

To put it simply, if you want to actually be able to understand “trends” and “concepts” and how they worked and work, you need to understand when the important events occurred. For instance, it matters that Christianity spent the first 280 years of its existence in, at best, a state of legal limbo. It matters that the Republican party formed immediately after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and not before or after. It matters that Dred Scott happened before the Civil War and before Lincoln was elected President–and it matters that the Civil War occurred while Lincoln was President instead of, say, Franklin Pierce. It matters that women got the right to vote after World War I, and that second-wave feminism got cranked up after World War II and Korea. It matters that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact occurred shortly before the invasion of Poland, and that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany after 1929.

To be slightly more recent, it matters that Obama, during negotiations on the 2009 stimulus package, replied to Republican concerns by saying, “I won.” It matters that the ruckus of the Arab Spring occurred after our invasion of Iraq, but not for some time afterwards.

Why is this important? Two things.

First, switching chronology tends to result in people thinking that x is the result of y, instead of the other way around, which can cause problems. See the belief in Germany that the 1918 disturbances caused Germany to begin its slide to losing World War I, rather than Germany’s slide to losing the war causing the disturbances. The results of that particular historiographical error are rather well known.

Second, if one understands chronology, one understands that important things can take a very long time to do. Failing to do so tends to lead to impatience and premature cries of failure/malfeasance, both of which tend to lead to problems, like pushing things too far too fast and causing backlash. See any guerrilla war America fought in the past fifty years, Roe v. Wade, Obamacare, and anything involving the words inequality, racism, or sexism.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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