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Make college students take (real) history

Several years ago I gave a lecture at the University of Washington on the situation of women in ancient Rome.  Afterwards, two co-eds asked me about the Roman Empire. Where and when was it, they wanted to know.

Thinking this was some sort of tease, I told them it ruled Southern California in the 1920s. I was stunned when they began to write that down. 

So, after I explained about Rome, I quizzed them further, to test what they did know about history. 

There are a number of major historical falsehoods that now flourish in the politically correct environment that prevails on our college and university campuses.

Not much, it turns out. 

They did not know in what century the Civil War had occurred, they had never heard of the Crusades, and they guessed that D-Day might be a Roman Catholic holiday.

These were intelligent young women who earned good grades. But they had never taken any history courses (not even in high school) and didn’t expect to take any, since the university no longer had such a requirement. 

In fact, most colleges no longer require any history. Those that do often require only a course in American history. Unfortunately, even these courses often teach little of basic American history.

Consider Texas, which requires all state schools to require and teach two courses in American history. A recent assessment of how these requirements are often met is depressing. Each of the following listed courses was deemed to satisfy the requirement: 

- “History of Mexicans in the U.S.” 

- “The Black Power Movement” 

- “Mexican-American Women, 1910-present,” 

- “Race and Revolution” 

-“The United States and Africa”

These may be intellectually respectable courses, but they cannot possibly provide students with a basic education in American history. 

Perhaps that explains the young Dallas lawyer who asked me in an airport what I was reading on my Kindle. When I replied, “A book on the War of 1812,” he responded, “Who fought in that one?”

There are worse things than not requiring history courses or only offering those limited to a tiny slice of the subject, and that is to teach malicious nonsense. Sadly there are a number of major historical falsehoods that now flourish in the politically correct environment that prevails on our college and university campuses.

One is that ancient Greece stole its advanced culture from black Egyptians. This is wrong on several levels. The only black people living in ancient Egypt were slaves, not rulers or intellectuals.  And despite being able to build pyramids, Egyptian culture was far behind that of the Greeks, as the historian Herodotus made quite clear at the time.

Another falsehood often peddled in our universities is that Muslim societies forged far ahead in science while Europe suffered through the Dark Ages. Again, not so. 

In reality the “Dark Ages” is a myth. Many of the important inventions that put Europe ahead of the rest of the world were made during this era. Moreover, whatever sophisticated culture existed in Muslim nations during medieval times was primarily the culture of the Jews, Christians, Persians, and Hindus living under Muslim rule. That helps explain why Muslims societies have had to import all their technology from the West in recent years.

Yet another myth holds that Europe got rich by stealing its wealth from its colonies in the non-Western world. The reality is that the volume of trade involved between Europe and its colonies was too small to have had any significant impact on European economies.  

Further, while some Europeans did get rich through trade with non-Western colonies, Europeans as a whole lost a great deal of money. For instance, British taxpayers shouldered the immense costs of the Royal Navy and foreign civil service that made the colonial system possible, while just a small number profited from colonial trade.

The list of poisonous, fake history peddled in higher education goes on and on: The United States started the Cold War. The American Indians were pacifists until the White man taught them to make war. The Civil War was about economics, not slavery. Harry Truman was a war criminal.

It’s time to address this campus claptrap and get back to teaching at least the basics of American history and, hopefully, some world history too.  Let’s stop graduating bright students who can be led to believe that Los Angeles was the capital of the Roman Empire.

Rodney Stark is co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. His latest book is "How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity" (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, March 17, 2014).