A tongue-in-cheek article by A. Barton Hinkle claims that “Now We Know Why Children Are Getting Dumber.” In essence, it’s because the volume of knowledge keeps expanding. There’s always more literature out there to be pored over, there’s always more scientific innovation and discovery to help explain the natural world, and there’s always more history being made. Hinkle writes:
Same for history: They just keep making more of it. For the WWII generation, the Great Depression wasn’t history, it was current events. They didn’t have to learn about the civil-rights movement or Vietnam or Watergate or Reaganomics because none of that had happened yet. Today’s pupils not only have to learn all that more recent history, they will soon be learning the history of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Obama administration. And the cohort after that? Good luck to them, because they’re going to need it.
Reading the article brought me back to a recent discussion with some coworkers. They said that high school math stays pretty much the same, although some of the higher-ups keep trying to change how it’s taught. They said that high school science remains relatively stable, but does make adjustments to curriculum when discovery warrants it. But history, they said, keeps growing at a relatively constant pace of roughly one year per year. More if you consider that with an expanding population, there’re more people out there to make history.
I pointed out that happily, history teachers have a way around this– at least in high school survey courses. The trick is that our courses don’t cover the whole shebang. They aren’t supposed to. As time goes on, we thin out the beginning, shift around the middle, and tack a little bit more onto the end. The coverage of history in survey classes, I said, looks like a chi-square distribution. To wit (click to embiggen):
A history text can’t cover anything after its publication (until we start teaching via Kindles and iPads, and then there’ll be semantic debates over what truly constitutes publication). Recent history, say the last decade or so, gets pretty thin coverage because it’s too close to being “current events.” Then the coverage gets heavier and heavier, until you get to a few hundred years back, and it starts to thin out again. In later editions, you add another chapter at the end and merge chapters at the beginning– those bindings can only hold so much paper.
I own my grandfather’s high school history textbook, which ends with discussion about whether America would enter “The Great War.” I’ll flip through it on occasion for the older perspective on certain events, and to compare it to the textbook I use in my classes. Grampa’s book is much heavier on the period from 1650 to 1750, going into much greater detail about the wars between France and Britain and how they played out in North America. It also spends over 100 pages on the Civil War, which had ended barely 50 years before publication.
Current textbooks understandably trim that 1650-1750 period down to maybe two chapters and spend maybe 40-50 pages on the Civil War, because you’ve got to add in 100 years of new stuff– the Roaring 20s, the Depression, WWII, the Cold War, Elvis, etc. The last few pages of my 2002 edition of The American Pageant discuss the internet, David Mamet, 9/11, and the PATRIOT Act. The War in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Red Sox, Obama and I are going to show up in the newer editions, and the 1600s will grow ever-thinner. But the shape of the curve will remain the same.
So there goes that excuse. Get to work.