Two steps back = one step forward

No one would accuse Americans of having a love affair with history. Last year, nearly 80 percent of seniors at 55 selective colleges failed a basic US history questionnaire. The book "Don't Know Much About History" - a quick fix for filling in wide gaps - became a bestseller in the 1990s. Visitors from other countries are frequently astonished at our happy ignorance.

But that may be changing. A couple of weeks ago, a saleswoman in a Doubleday bookstore remarked that she'd never seen so many political-science books flying off the shelves. At other bookstores and online, reading anything to do with Afghanistan or the Middle East often means adding your name to a waiting list. And in schools, teachers are heading to the library and the Web for sources that will answer students' urgent questions.

Which means that history's bad rap in this country, if it hasn't disappeared, may at least be in for a slight makeover. Suddenly, history seems to matter - and more teachers are linking it to current events.

One of the first stops in this new effort is patriotism. Many see the surge of unity as a good point to start teaching Americans something about their own history. But the methods can be controversial. Last Friday, for instance, students across the US paused at the same moment to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as part of "Pledge Across America," an effort that until this year received only scattered attention nationwide.

For some, it's a needed statement of appreciation, or a chance to delve into US history and current events. Others say it's fodder for blind jingoism. But if such efforts are combined with good materials and discussion, who knows? Maybe teachers will find class running beyond the bell - with no complaints.

E-mail newcomba@csps.com.

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