Friday, 9 November 2007

If no one cares about history, does it really matter?

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Or so goes the saying. In its typical hyperventilating reaction to this latest poll, the Dominion Institute is calling for mandatory history testing of high school students if they wish to graduate.

When asked why the younger generation (and I would argue a large number of my generation) do not know their history, the answer invariably falls under the "they don't give a shit" category. How do we make them give a shit? By forcing tests on them? I know that doesn't work. I've forgotten more than I remember from high school because 99.9999% of what I learned has no bearing on my day to day matters. (The sad part is, over 90% of what I learned in college is irrelevant too. Even though I work in IT, and the course was Computer Science, everything I was taught is out of date and is no longer applicable. Even the theory I learned has been tossed out as irrelevant and unworkable in the modern economy. Sigh.) Students memorize what they need to pass, and then quickly forget what is not important to them. Memorization is not learning, and it is certainly not understanding. To understand a topic, one has to be personally invested in that topic and want to learn it. You can't force desire or will, you can only encourage it and hope for the best. Forced testing will not improve our knowledge of our history at all.

This leads into the argument about why we need to know our history. We need it to better understand our country and ourselves. I do agree with that personally, but we are still stuck with the fact that many people do not care nor desire to understand our history. Why should you care? Because a better understanding of our history makes you a more informed voter, and a more informed voter is a benefit to our electoral system. So far so good right?

Except...

"The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim."
Oh. So I need to understand my history to be a better voter, so I can participate in elections where my contribution doesn't matter. So again, why bother voting, and why bother learning our history?

As the New York Times article states, voting (and knowing your history) is in your own self-interest. Just like eating your vegetables. Not much of a sales pitch is it?

1 comment:

Saskboy said...

Interesting NYTimes article. They are of course not aware of PR voting systems where every vote counts toward a party's seat, which might turn their conclusion at least partly on its head. Also, any Internet Voting is absurd from a security and democratic standpoint, not only for the social reasons mentioned. If you can't see the majority of the ballots cast in the election, in hard copy form, its entirely too easy for one person to change the result on a whim.

History is getting bigger and more complex all the time. Many people are info-overloaded, so I see why they avoid history. The problem is, as you say, that people who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it. As with software programs that have been written before, and so can be copied or modified, so too can history. If people could look at modern American politics and juxtapose them to Germany in the 1930s, they may become terrified of the conclusions they could draw from the similarities. That's why governments don't promote history education. It's easier to pull the wool over the eyes of the uninformed.

Everything that's done, has been done before ;-)