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More letters from alumni about ingnorance of history

October 16, 2001

Ben Edelman’s riposte to Alex Rawson’s article on the need for more historical exposure deserves a riposte in turn. I have no doubt Edelman speaks for the future Princeton that Harold Shapiro began to shape, "Princeton in the service and in the service of all nations." A hundred years from now, at Princeton’s tercenquinquagenary, it may well be that we will no longer be an American university. We may be a purely global enterprise, one that’s merely "situated in New Jer-see." Until then, however, I take Rawson’s side. Princeton boasts American roots. We have an American identity. We are an American university.

Edelman’s reply was both thoughtful and articulate, but it shows, unfortunately, what happens when a representative of one of those worthy cultures that make up Princeton’s (and America’s) diverse and worthy array feels compelled to assert that group’s claims to curricular hegemony. Of the five items he considers indispensable for all Princeton undergraduates, two focus on what I take to be his Edelman’s cultural priority – the Holocaust and the Middle East. Do those events deserve coverage? Of course. Should the lessons they teach be analyzed and absorbed? Absolutely. But to make them the spine of any American university’s historical curriculum strikes me an act of distorted cultural self-interest.

I’m with those who say that all Princetonians, and especially those who come to us from abroad, ought to learn some of the crucial facts and principles of American history and culture. If this means knowing the name of John Marshall, the dominant shaper of the third branch of the U.S. government, then by all means let’s learn it. And learn it first. Global affairs, as we are now even more aware, are going to impinge increasingly on our way of life. Our teaching of history should take note of that pressure – its sources, its beliefs. But we should have a clear knowledge of our culture first. Such a mastery could in fact prove instrumental in helping us shape that wider world according to those unique ideals we as a nation have formulated.

Jamie Spencer ’66
St. Louis, Mo.

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July 24, 2001

Reading On the Campus in May 16 was depressing. It appears to mirror a growing liturgy of reports concerning the ignorance of the U.S. populace at large as to our country's history in particular and world history in general.

Of particular interest was the cartoon question posed in the upper right of the page concerning the term "Civil War." Since there was no answer sheet, I do not know the politically correct response, but here again the very term promotes inaccuracy. The conflict within our country during 1861-65 was not technically a "civil war," as that refers to two opposing political spheres resorting to force for the same seat of government. This was of course not the case in the better-described "War Between the States." Wonder if that was on the answer sheet?

Barton Campbell '61
Midlothian, Va.

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May 24, 2001

Alex Rawson '01's On the Campus on historical illiteracy (May 16) probably resonated with more Princeton graduates than would wish to admit it.

I would have shuddered, especially as a graduate of Princeton and a history major, had I been given such a test as Rawson discussed in his article when I walked out FitzRandolph Gate in June 1997.

I also would have shuddered if someone told me I would be one of those pitiable and gloomy creatures called a grad student getting a master's degree in history at the University of Montana four years later.

Only now, as I wrap up my master's and finish grading a foot-and-a-half high stack of American history bluebooks can I honestly say I feel confident about my historical literacy.

Princeton students can get through four years debating theory (for instance, the philosophy of Rousseau or Hobbes) without really having to learn about the times in which the theorists lived nor their influence on American history. I fault an advising system that is too lenient or apathetic to deal with the bulk of students, favoring instead, a non-imposing style that gives undergrads too much room to wiggle.

Make a standard U.S. history course mandatory (two for history majors). Why? While bright minds deserve some flexibility and diversity in their course choices, many of the same bright minds will skirt important courses and choose an easier route if allowed. GPAs are all too important these days, and frankly, the course descriptions of some American history classes can impress upon a young mind such an impending sense of torturous, rheumatic suffering amidst dusty, ancient tomes in Firestone library that they simply choose one of the many alternatives to what may have been a rewarding and fundamentally important class.

Dan Wennogle '97
Missoula, Mont.

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May 14, 2001

I found Alex Rawson '01's On the Campus column (May 16) "Condemned to Repeat It" to be a narrow-minded diatribe aimed at the wrong problem. I am sure that Mr. Rawson is correct in stating that many college students -- even Princeton students -- don't know as much history as they should. But he misses the point entirely when he states "global understanding should build on rather than replace national identity."

To whose national identity is Mr. Rawson referring? His own as an American? What about the identities of over 400 of his fellow Princetonians who aren't from this country? While Mr. Rawson laments the fact that "most embarrassingly, five students ... could not identify John Adams as the second president of the U.S." I would be surprised if he could name the second president / sovereign / prefect / prime minister of more than a handful of countries other than his own. Should this ignorance disqualify Mr. Rawson from admission to Oxford, McGill, or the University of Kinshasa? I would hope not.

Yes, history is important, and yes, most Princetonians probably do not know enough of it. But knowing the minutiae of which chief justice presided over Marbury vs. Madison, which U.S. president was second and which was third, and which army general was present at Yorktown, is not the history that Princetonians need to know.

The history we need to understand is about the British and French Mandates in the Middle East that formed the basis for the half-century of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. We need to analyze the U.S.'s shift from an agrarian to an industrial to a service economy, and the effects of that shift on urban and rural poverty. We need to learn about the tragedies of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, and the Stalinist mass murders so that we are not, in fact, condemned to repeat them. But memorize which Supreme Court justices presided over which cases? I don't think so.

I hope Mr. Rawson will open his eyes and look at his fellow students from all over the world. Then perhaps he will realize the need for an understanding of history that goes beyond what you must know to win at Trivial Pursuit.

Ben Edelman '93
New Haven, Conn.

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Although the methodology of Alex Rawson '01's survey in his On the Campus column (May 16) about historical illiteracy was a little suspect, I think the main point stands: Ignorance of history is still at a pretty high level among those who are (or will be) among the most highly educated. Every few years, someone does a survey like this and there is a big hue and cry. (In Canada, my home country, a similar story was published during my last year of high school.) Of course, all of this might be an improvement over the past: I should like to see the results of a similar poll taken in the 1950s, if it existed, before I would forecast the downfall of American democracy.

Although it's awfully important to have a global perspective, the fact remains that Princeton is a university in the U.S., hopefully educating some of its future leaders. If those persons don't have a certain base level of knowledge about its history, the country's institutions do suffer. In attempting to provide breadth, sometimes we sacrifice depth. I think that a certain deeper understanding of history should be the province of an informed and active citizen. Also, although we celebrate the international character of our student body, we must face the fact that over 90 percent of undergraduates are American citizens. Furthermore, given that the rest of the students have chosen to study at an American institution, they might benefit from a grounding in American history.

I might also add that Rawson suggested that this additional education happen at Princeton, not before. An additional requirement, though perhaps tiresome to a few students, would not actually prevent anyone from studying here.

I don't think it's merely a game of Trivial Pursuit (invented by a pair of Canadians, incidentally) to ask students about the history of the development of the Constitution or other major events. (Given the recent prominence of the Supreme Court's decisions, it might be useful to know why it is able to strike down laws...) In an era of declining political participation, such knowledge might actually be of assistance in allowing citizens to create or continue a civil discourse. Is it so terrible to be knowledgeable about the history of one's own country?

Benjamin Sharma '03
Toronto, Canada

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