John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Don’t Know Much About History

Posted on February 18, 2015
Flag of Oklahoma

"Flag of Oklahoma". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

State legislators in Oklahoma voted to stop state funding for AP history courses offered by the College Board and taught in many high schools across the country, because, according to the sponsor of the legislation, it doesn’t teach about American exceptionalism.

I guess we need more  “America is awesome” chants, and less critical thinking about our nation’s history.

I have a Master’s Degree is History, although I didn’t take any AP classes in my high school.  That all seemed like too much work when I was in my Junior and Senior years at Homewood-Flossmoor, and my teachers who taught non-advanced placement courses seemed to do a very fine job of it.

But getting rid of funding for AP classes because a politician doesn’t like what the kids are learning seems a little extreme for me.

Winston Churchill was so concerned about his place in history that he wrote his own histories.  An African proverb points out that if Lions were able to talk to historians, we would be hearing a lot more about the perspectives of the hunted rather than hear about the exploits of the hunter.

It is often said that the winners write the history, and of course, that is usually the case, although historians have a habit of constantly revisiting the past to get a better glimpse into the future.

There is a Great Man theory that posits that it is great people (usually men, usually white men) who shape the history of which we all live.  And by Great Men we don’t necessarily mean great guys to hang around with.   Hitler could be seen as a Great Man, but not a great guy, under this theory.

Social history, which frequently devolves into Sociology, studies mass movements of people, without too much of an emphasis on any one human being.

Military history tends to view everything through the lens of great battles, war and technologies.   Political history looks at progress through our political leaders.

Economic history looks at how the use of capital , money and the production of goods influences the course of human progress.   Most economic historians are Marxist by training.

Americans don’t know much about history.   They barely know anything about current events.   Ask a random ten people outside of Washington who the Speaker of the House is and bet you only 5 answer you correctly.

Ask them about Reconstruction or when the Civil War was, or what the Missouri Compromise did, or how we got into the First World War or who the President was who promised to keep us out of war, and you would probably be astounded by the limited knowledge of most Americans.

It’s probably not that surprising that an Oklahoma politician would want to ban funding for AP history (no offense to my Sooner friends).   Politicians often get excited about things they know nothing about.

But the anti-intellectualism that is currently in favor with a percentage of the conservative base is, well, troubling.

I thought we had settled the question of evolution back during the Scopes Trial.  We should probably stop going to war with a fairly high percentage of the world’s scientists.

Back in the Age of Jackson it was good politics to go to war against all the smart people.   But knowledge is power.  And the more knowledge you have the more power you will accrue, especially these days in our information economy.

The Know-nothings used to be a political movement.  But they were pretending not to know about something, (usually the political activities of the group), but actually did.

This Know-Nothing group seems to take pride in not actually knowing anything.    Let’s hope the movement extinguishes itself by dint of its own ignorance.