Grandpa's history should be mandatory

Professors today are appalled at the ignorance of incoming freshmen about the most rudimentary facts of 20th-century American history. Asked to briefly describe the New Deal, several students (in a class of 40-50) will mutter something about TVA or social security - and then fall silent. Most will draw a total blank.

They have never heard of Marian Anderson or Eugene Debs or Wendell Willkie. The Marshall Plan is a mystery, Hull House could be a condominium, Teapot Dome a sports stadium. Sinclair Lewis is Mr. Nobody, and so is Grant Wood. Whenever professors refer to any but the most recent 20th-century personality, program, or event (unless it involves entertainment), they must stop and explain what they are talking about. To no one's surprise, television has given the young no more than the skimpiest historical knowledge of our age. Nielsen forbids.

What to do about it?

One major university, Miami of Ohio, contemplates requiring all of its more than 15,000 students to study 20th-century American history.

Interest in this educational proposal draws on a persuasive premise. Shouldn't college students know something about the decades in which their parents and grandparents lived? Of course they should know more history than that, but shouldn't they at least know this?

In a university which (like others) is ever more fragmented and specialized, a second premise holds that students should have at least one common and unifying educational experience. This won't make the campus a community, but it will help.

There is no consensus in academe on what all college students should learn. Some would opt for a foreign language, some for math, some for the history of Western (or non-Western) civilization. A good case can be made for each of these - and for others - but perhaps the strongest overall case exists for 20 th-century American history.

Adoption of this requirement would be one of the best ways to strengthen intergenera-tional ties and understanding between students and their parents and grandparents. That is a worthy objective during a time when change is so rapid that the young are likely both to lose their moorings and to forget the revolving character of human problems, aspirations, and frustrations.

Student acquaintance with this era would facilitate and enrich the work of classroom teachers in numerous fields that draw from time to time upon this period. Novelists, journalists, and other writers frequently hark back to earlier 20th-century personalities and events, references that are meaningless to the historically deficient reader.

The course would broaden and deepen student awareness of the factors, forces, figures, and institutions that have most directly shaped today's society. The past is ever prologue, something each generation must learn anew.

Since we need to understand our own culture and its development before we can knowledgeably compare it with others, this course could prepare the way for a more fruitful study of other countries, regions, and historical eras. Any new requirement will face student resistance, but this would encounter less than from any other required liberal arts course. Faculty resources are available to do the job, unlike most other compulsory course candidates. Finally, it would meet with the enthusiastic approval of parents, alumni - and even of the more enlightened corporate leaders who are concerned with recruiting more than trained technicians.

Well-taught history lies at the heart of a liberal education. But history courses everywhere have experienced sharply declining enrollments during recent years. Students crowd into classes that will enhance their employability; history is not seen as serving that goal. The point is arguable, if more than immediacy is considered, but in any case a college education should be more than Vo-Ed.

Students will be citizens as well as employees, parents as well as wage earners, consumers of the arts as well as supermarket shoppers. More than half of our waking hours is spent off the job, and a job-oriented education contributes little to that portion of our lives.

We want more than a technically advanced and materially productive society. We want a literate and civilized people with humane and civilized institutions. Without an adequate exposure to the liberal arts, our people will never come close to attaining that goal.

No one pretends that familiarity with even a broadly cultural 20th-century American history offering would be adequate to that end. It would be only the beginning, but it may well be the best cornerstone upon which a liberal education should build. Certainly its absence leaves a preposterous gap in a student's education, a gap that high schools do not remotely fill.

If vision becomes reality, Miami will have taken a step that others could profitably follow.

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