HETRICK: Throwing the book at civic illiteracy

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I have to share a story some readers may remember.

Years ago, education advocate Mary Ann Sullivan invited me to visit the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School—then a new charter school in Indianapolis.

We drove to the Meadows neighborhood, had breakfast in a school conference room, heard from Principal Marcus Robinson and met some of the founding board members.

Then we got a history lesson I’ve never forgotten. Here’s how I told the tale in 2006:

On the first day of school, eighth-grade history teacher George Barnes took aim at tradition. With all the arm strength of the former Butler University football player he is, Barnes heaved a history text across his classroom. The book flew past his students’ stunned faces and crashed against the wall.

Barnes asked the shocked teens: “If you were recording for history what you just witnessed, what would you say?”

“Some,” said Barnes, “said, ‘That Mr. Barnes, he’s a crazy man. He’s insane. We’d better worry about our lives.’

“Others,” he said, “suggested I must have been aiming for so-and-so’s head, because she was talking in class.

“Then I told them that if I were writing that history, I’d say, ‘Oh, my hand slipped.’ And if that’s the only history they ever read, the ‘truth’ would be that my hand slipped.”

Then Barnes explained to his students why he threw the book. He wanted to get their attention. He wanted to demonstrate that he doesn’t teach from a text. And he wanted his students to learn, via their own reporting, why: Because history is a matter of perspective. And different people have different perspectives. So instead of any single text, Barnes uses myriad books, websites, papers, speeches and other sources.

“History is not an exact science,” Barnes said. “Yet too often, we believe what we learn in history is gospel, definite fact, the way it is.”

I remembered this story when the Associated Press reported on emails from former Indiana governor and now Purdue University President Mitch Daniels. Daniels was concerned about a history book written by the late Howard Zinn.

“This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” Daniels said of Zinn in an email to state education officials. “The obits and commentaries mentioned his book, ‘A People’s History of the United States,’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.

“Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

When his education adviser reported that Zinn’s book was being used along with others in a course at Indiana University, Daniels quickly responded: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session.”

Something tells me that instead of throwing the book at Zinn’s book, Mr. Barnes would have assigned comparison-and-contrast lessons between Zinn’s version of history and those of others. And had he done so, his students would have walked out of Tindley’s classrooms and into Daniels’ Purdue University and other colleges not with a set of memorized, single-perspective “historical facts,” but with the ability to question, discern, reason, shape opinions, defend those opinions and compromise.

Sadly, our students and citizens are sorely lacking in these abilities—as well as a basic knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and the civic process by which we govern ourselves.

Last week, at an ACLU program called “The Constitution: Peruse It or Lose It,” my IUPUI colleague Sheila Kennedy spoke of a research study that found only 36 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of government. She noted that in our educational institutions, we test what’s deemed important, and that Indiana students are not tested on their knowledge of civics. In fact, said Kennedy, when she conducts her own tests of U.S. civic literacy, only her foreign students pass.

Given their media habits, Hoosier adults are likely as ill informed as their children.

At the same ACLU event, Michael Gordon, an educator from Munster, cited a study showing that 40 percent of Hoosiers look at only one source of news per day. No comparison. No contrast. No questioning. No discerning. Just Fox News. Or MSNBC. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or “Entertainment Tonight.” Or “Sports Center.” Or “Good Morning America.” Or “The National Enquirer.”

French lawyer, diplomat, writer and philosopher Joseph de Maistre said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”

If we, as citizens, don’t do a better job of learning, teaching and actively engaging in what Gordon calls “civic knowledge, civic skills and civic disposition,” then we’ll almost assuredly get the government, leaders and policies we deserve.

That, sadly, would be something to throw the book at.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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