by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
There are a number of educators who decry memorizing the facts, names, events, and dates of history as the misguided practice of a "Trivial Pursuit" approach to schooling-the equivalent of substituting "Jeopardy!" for the more essential creative lessons which can address the whole child in exciting group exercises of various psychosocial kinds to promote interpersonal intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and the like. Their slogan has always been, "We don't teach subjects, We teach children!"
The date of the victory in battle during the U.S. War of Independence which finally persuaded the French, with Benjamin Franklin's help, to bring their navy in on the side of the British colonists in North America, so they could win the battle of Yorktown in 1781, which was the Stalingrad which finally turned the tide of the war and led to the achievement of our "Separate and Equal Station" spoken for in the Declaration of Independence (1776)-all this is seen as too trivial to ask students to remember.
In its place, the focus of these creative educators tends to be on the experiences, feelings, relationships and opinions of the students themselves. Students are encouraged to concern themselves with contemporary issues, such as diversity at the prom, proposing a new state flower to the legislature or protesting that the potholes near their school have not been filled in a timely manner, or even marching for janitors' wage hikes or against supporting companies which invest in Darfur or Chad.
As a result, many of our high school graduates are not only hard put to find New York or San Francisco on a map, or explain the causes and progress of the Cold War, or name anyone who attended our Constitutional Convention [whenever that was], but also to remember the names and terms of even four or five Presidents of the United States, or any of the issues they had to deal with.
In addition, too many of our high school students are not assigned a complete nonfiction book to read for school (mostly they read novels), nor are they asked to write a history research paper once before they graduate. Most of their academic writing, if that is the word for it, is personal, creative, or limited to the five-paragraph essay.
The appeal to educators of a free-form, self-actualizing, group-centered classroom with a "guide on the side" who facilitates exciting activities dedicated to stimulating the distracted interests of the whole child or the whole adolescent is virtually overpowering in too many cases, and is carefully supported by the bulk of their training in what has become of our schools of education, some of which have begun examining their students' political dispositions, or commitments to social justice, rather than whether they know anything about what they will be teaching.
The question remains that if we need to appoint an ambassador to the United Nations, is it OK if they know nothing about the world or the people in it, or the history of their own country? Do we want self-actualizing Senators and members of Congress who cannot read or write anything but personal fiction? Will we be in a good position to compete economically with very serious people in India and China if our graduates have specialized in songs for their IPod and new ringtones for their phones, while in a school which told them that information and knowledge-in other words, facts, people, dates, events and the like-were too trivial for them to bother with?
Bertrand Russell once said "the first task of education is to destroy the tyranny of the local and immediate over the child's imagination," but just that tyranny has devotees among too many of our educators.
In writing about the need to substitute factual knowledge and serious academic reading and writing in place of the curricular follies in which so many of our educators persistently indulge themselves, Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver has written: "The conclusions I have reached tend to be branded elitist. The notion that children should be initiated into disciplined forms of inquiry and understanding by the study of remote, "irrelevant" knowledge rather than by becoming familiar with the immediate social issues around them has been branded, by Dewey most insistently, a betrayal of North American societies. My argument is that the betrayal has been wrought by Dewey's style of socializing social studies, and it is a betrayal both of education and of democratic values. 'Elitism' is making the best form of education available to only a few. The democratic ideal of education is to make the best form of education available to all. The democratic ideal is not achieved, and elitism is not defeated, by making the best form of education available to almost nobody."
The real trivial pursuit in education is educators' flight from teaching a solid knowledge of history, and away from insisting on the diligent acquisition of first-rate skills in reading difficult nonfiction material and in writing serious research papers. Those who do prefer the current psychosocial trivial pursuits are truly putting a sizable fraction of our high school graduates in jeopardy, and far too many of them now fail to graduate from college.
Will Fitzhugh [founder]