According to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the scores of US 8th grade students on the NAEP assessment of history have been trending downwards since 2014. Some blame the pandemic for its ‘profound impact’ on student learning in general, but since the trend began much earlier, the blame must lie elsewhere. As someone deeply interested in history, I was curious to hear what Chad might have to say about this trend. “Though it’s a traditional problem in the US,” I said, “we might legitimately wonder why the shift began in 2014. Can you throw any light on this phenomenon?”
For once, Chad had no clear answers or even serious suggestions other than a list of “possible causes.” Among them, Chad cited curriculum changes imposed by educational authorities, new teaching approaches, the increased use of technology and other factors, such as societal changes, cultural shifts, or economic challenges.
As expected, Chad closed out the list with this resounding conclusion: “It’s important to note that the reasons behind a decline in student performance can be complex and multifaceted.”
Hiding my exasperation at hearing Chad’s predictable leitmotif designed to end any serious exploration of a new topic, I tried to direct the conversation towards more specific points.
“I’ve often talked about a feature of US culture that distinguishes it, say, from Europe. The very idea of history has never carried the kind of prestige that would incite youngsters to take an interest in it. The US has always insisted that the present and future are all that matters. The past cannot be changed, so there’s no reason to dwell on it. When the newly elected President Obama was asked about his intentions concerning the prosecution of alleged war crimes committed to the previous administration, he offered an ambiguous answer many interpreted as a copout. He said, ‘I don’t believe anybody is above the law., On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.’
Obama’s rhetoric seems to reflect two features that are spread widely across US culture. The first is that the past is either too insignificant or — more likely — too embarrassing to waste time on. The second, given his insistence on what he ‘believes,’ is that facts are less important than beliefs. Don’t both of those attitudes expressed by a president send the following message to the public: that the less we think about history the more we can accomplish in the present and immediate future?”
Explaining and excusing Obama
Chad, as usual, demonstrated the art of agreeing with a proposition before dismissing it as irrelevant.
“It is true that the United States has often emphasized a forward-looking perspective and a focus on the present and future, especially in comparison to some European cultures that may place a greater emphasis on history and historical consciousness. However, it is essential to note that generalizations about an entire culture can oversimplify complex societal attitudes and beliefs.”
I had to interrupt here to remind Chad that I wasn’t generalizing about the “entire culture” but attempting to focus on a significant trend. Chad has developed the unfortunate habit of dismissing the consideration of any discernible trend on the shaky grounds that exceptions may exist. Unperturbed by my interruption, Chad carried on.
“Regarding President Obama’s statement, it is important to consider the context in which it was made. The comment about looking forward rather than backward was made in the context of addressing potential legal action against the previous administration. It was a reflection on striking a balance between accountability for past actions and the need to move the country forward. This statement does not necessarily reflect a broader attitude toward history among the American public or imply that the past should be disregarded entirely.
Here I had to step in. “Chad, you claim that Obama’s statement was about striking a balance, but that is historically false. His second assertion simply cancelled the first. It didn’t balance it. He offered it an excuse for inaction, not the statement of a principle. He never took any action. This had the effect of establishing impunity for all political decision-makers, effectively putting them “above the law.” Obama never prosecuted or even investigated any of the perpetrators of what were, according to the letter of the law, war crimes.”
Chad promptly apologized for not “adequately addressing” my concerns regarding President Obama’s statement and tried a different tack.
“It is true that during President Obama’s administration, there were debates and criticisms regarding the handling of issues related to accountability for alleged war crimes or other actions of the previous administration. The decision not to pursue legal action or investigations against individuals from the previous administration could be seen as a policy choice or a prioritization of other issues.
However, it is important to note that the decision-making process and considerations behind such decisions are complex and can involve various legal, political, and practical factors”.
When does negligence become complicity?
Here was yet another excuse rather than a clarification. “You say Obama’s decision ‘can involve various legal, political, and practical factors.’ That’s obvious but excusing or ignoring a crime can be seen as a form of complicity. You systematically cite complexity as a reason for ignoring responsibility. But that isn’t the point. My general argument is that if US culture makes it so easy to dismiss anything in the past as irrelevant or not worth bothering about, we lose our capacity to grapple with the complex chains of cause and effects that define history and may guide our decision-making in the present and future.”
“I understand your perspective that the culture of the United States may place less emphasis on remembering and reflecting on the past, which could contribute to a neglect of understanding the causes and effects of historical events. The notion that the past can be disregarded or forgotten is a concern that has been raised by many individuals and scholars.”
For a brief moment, I felt we were making progress. But Chad immediately undermined the effect of this step forward.
“It is important to note that historical understanding and memory are complex issues that are influenced by a range of factors, including cultural, political, and social contexts.”
“Whoa Nelly,” I burst out. “I have to stop you there. There you go with your all-purpose ‘complexity’ argument that you use to simplify, if not dismiss every complex problem! Think about it. I’m claiming history is complex and needs to be dealt with. You seem to be saying that because it’s complex, we can write off the systematic neglect of history on the grounds that it is too complex to draw any conclusion.”
“I apologize,” Chad responded defensively, “if my previous responses have given the impression that I am using the argument of complexity to dismiss or simplify the neglect of history. That is not my intention.
Complexity should not be used as an excuse to disregard the study of history or the examination of its causes and effects. On the contrary, it is precisely because history is complex that it requires careful analysis, critical thinking, and a commitment to understanding the nuances and intricacies of the past.”
I let out a deep breath and offered a final objection. “I totally agree, but that means taking the time to examine and compare the various explanatory hypotheses, not dismissing each one because of something called complexity. Chad, I seriously doubt that we can advance any further in this conversation.”
With that, I left the breakfast table to go about my daily business.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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