Robert F. Jakubowicz: Voters must learn their history
PITTSFIELD >> The point of a March 25 op-ed column in this newspaper ("State schools must do better on history," March 25) that public schools are not doing a good job in teaching American history and preparing students to be informed about who we are as a nation and to be knowledgeable civic participants was well taken. But the solutions offered by former governor Michael Dukakis and former state Senate president Thomas Birmingham to fix this problem in the schools will not help the current generation of voters who have already graduated from high school.
Here in Berkshire County, we do have a program of continuing adult education called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Berkshire Community College which can fix this educational flaw for post-high school voters. However, this national education problem is one of the basic reasons we now have elected officials in Washington who misunderstand the nation's history in governing.
They eschew compromise between the separate branches of government and threaten to get their way by shutting down the federal government and defaulting on its debt. It is also a main reason today for the popularity of political candidates who peddle a lot of nonsense about the history of this country as to who we are as a nation and how we should be acting based on that historical experience.
This is neither what the Founding Fathers intended, nor is it the historical way this nation painstakingly progressed with its governance. As a matter of fact, uneducated voters are now even being celebrated by politicians. Donald Trump, in the celebration of his Nevada primary election, frankly 'fessed up to the popularity of his political campaign claptrap attracting politically uneducated voters. In his victory speech, he said: "We won with highly educated, we won with poorly educated! I love the poorly educated!"
If we really want to raise the level of our politics, we must have a knowledgeable civic participation by the young and the old. For the young this is much easier to fix because they are literally a captive audience subjected to the teaching of subjects as mandated by local school boards and state education agencies. Obviously one of these subjects is the teaching of history to prepare students for the responsibility of citizenship.
Massachusetts clearly and simply mandates such a mission in a state law that provides that American history and civics "shall be taught" in public elementary and high schools and that Massachusetts history must be taught in high schools as "required subjects for the purpose of promoting civic service and a greater knowledge thereof, and of fitting the pupils, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship." The point in the above-mentioned column was to get after these local and state officials to carry out that mission.
James W. Loewen, educator and author, in his book, "Lies my Teacher Told Me — Everything Your American Textbook Got Wrong," described this mission of American history as a high school subject "to prepare students to do their jobs as Americans to bring into being the America of the future." Today, according to Loewen, this would include such matters as setting a proper balance between civil liberties and dealing with terrorists; a proper energy policy in view of a finite supply of oil; evaluating the claims made by our political leaders and would-be leaders; winnowing facts from political nonsense; and understanding causes and results in the past. These are the skills that Loewen contends should be at the center of any competent history course.
I urge the Pittsfield School Committee and those of the other communities in Berkshire County as well as school administrators and history teachers, to read Loewen's book and then review the teaching of that subject in their areas. Similar reviews all over this nation would be a good step in the right direction to ensure thoughtful and responsible future citizens and voters.
OLLI's key role
Berkshire County educators could take the lead in making sure we had a model program here. OLLI, as it is operated in Berkshire County, has the basics to play an important part in educating adult voters who were handicapped by being poorly taught about American history. OLLI is a lifelong learning network of local colleges. The program here offers four seasonal semester of courses, once a week for just under an hour for about six weeks. There is a modest membership cost of about $50 and a lesser charge per course. Many of the lecturers are college professors. The courses continually change to attract the attention of the public.
My recommendation to the local OLLI — there are a few others in this state and many more in other states — is to offer a permanent course of American history as Loewen says it should be taught with different lecturers covering different times in that history. I think this would be a great continuing educational forum for a modest cost and expenditure of time for the public to really learn about our political system and become better informed citizens and voters.
Meanwhile, I would urge anyone interested in this subject to read the updated version of Loewen's book.
Robert F. Jakubowicz is a regular contributor to The Eagle.