Archive for Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Cutting history is a mistake

June 23, 2004


The recent proposal to reduce the amount of non-U.S. history taught in Kansas schools shocked me. Perhaps, it is because I am both a lawyer and a historian. Perhaps, it is because I cannot imagine reducing instruction in a field that is increasingly important to all Americans, or, perhaps, it is because I saw one comment that the reason for doing so was to enable Kansas schools to do the "patriotic" thing and teach more U.S. and Kansas history. This proposal is simply wrong-headed.

First of all, I believe that we need to teach more United States history and more Kansas history at every level in Kansas schools. This is not easy to do because the school day is already filled and seems to get shorter as the years pass. On the other hand, as someone who teaches at a university, I can testify that many students coming into the university are not as well prepared as they were even a decade ago.

The constant cutbacks in school funding have taken their toll on our schools and our children's education. We do need more history in our schools. We also need more teachers, better classrooms, more enrichment courses, and more of just about everything. So, in that sense, I agree with the proposal to teach more U.S. and Kansas history.

Where the proposal is wrong is in believing that we can afford to reduce the amount of exposure to foreign cultures that we provide to our students. Like it or not, the world has become a very small place. Kansas farmers depend upon international trade to make a living. Kansas corporations constantly seek markets outside Kansas. As it is, schoolchildren learn far fewer foreign languages that do their counterparts in other countries.

My wife and I often spend a week or two in Iceland during the summer. We are still surprised when we arrive there and find that everyone speaks at least three languages: Icelandic, Danish and English. Many Icelanders also speak French or German as well. How many graduates of Kansas high schools can speak any language other than English fluently? Have we already forgotten that one of the intelligence failures that led to the tragedy of 9-11 was the extreme shortage of Arabic speakers in American government agencies?

To me, even more troubling than the lack of language instruction is the new proposal to reduce instruction about the history and cultures of other nations and areas. This proposal would raise parochialism to new heights and drop our ability to compete in a global economy to a new low.

How can we possibly be a part of the world community if we know nothing about other cultures? Shall we allow students to graduate from Kansas high schools who have no knowledge of Islam? Shall we permit students to go out in the world who do not know where Poland is? Shall we send students into the world who have never heard of the Soviet Union? How can these students even understand our own history, a history that has been closely tied to the history of the whole world for more than two centuries?

I fear that this proposal to reduce history teaching in Kansas schools is just one more misplaced attempt to push further the isolationist agenda of a small misguided group of people. Unfortunately, many Kansans don't think history teaching is very important and may not pay attention to this proposal. But they are wrong.

It is history that lets us understand ourselves and our place in the world. If we permit such proposals as this to go forward, that understanding will be reduced and we will all suffer for it.

Mike Hoeflich, a professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the


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