A packet of letters arrived the other day from the honors English class at St. Lawrence School in Brasher Falls, N.Y. Snail mail, from high school sophomores? Yes, and honest, witty and insightful snail mail at that. They had been forced to read a book of mine. • "Personally, I don't like reading about history or learning about it," wrote one student, setting the tone for the rest of the class.
"The Dust Bowl? Really?" began another missive. "When we heard we were reading your book … heads dropped. Let me rephrase that, heads fell to the floor and rolled down the hallway."
You get the drift: History is a brain freeze. And, writers of history, well, there's a special place with the already-chewed gum in nerd camp for them. But as I read through the letters I was cheered. Some of the last survivors of the American Dust Bowl were high school sophomores when they were hit with the nation's worst prolonged environmental disaster. In that 1930s story of gritty resilience, the Brasher Falls kids of 2012 found a fresh way to look at their own lives and this planet.
History is always utilitarian, and often entertaining. It stirs the blood of any lover of the past to see Steven Spielberg's majestic Lincoln — at its core, a drama about politicians with ZZ Top beards writing legislation — crush the usual soulless, computer-generated distractions at the box office.
But history, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.
David McCullough, the snowy-headed author and occasional national scold, says we are raising a generation of Americans who are historically illiterate. He cites Harry Truman's line that the only new thing in the world is the history you don't know. And today, in part by design, there's a lot of know-nothingness throughout the land. Only 12 percent of high school seniors are "at or above proficient" in American history, which, of course, doesn't mean they're stupid.
For knuckleheaded refinement look to Florida, a breeder of bad ideas from dangerous gun laws to deliberate attempts to make it hard for citizens to vote. Gov. Rick Scott's task force on higher education is now suggesting that college students with business-friendly majors pay less tuition than those in traditional liberal arts fields.
"You know, we don't need a lot of anthropologists in this state," the governor said in October. "I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That's what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on."
Notice he said all. If the governor, who's been trying to run Florida like a corporation, had applied the skills of the liberal arts, his approval rating might be higher than 38 percent. Any anthropologist could tell Scott how he misread human behavior in the Sunshine State.
It's fine to encourage society to crank out more engineers, computer technicians and health care specialists. We need them. But do we really want to discourage people from trying to understand where they came from? The Florida proposals would enshrine the unexamined life.
This is but one byproduct of the rage among educators to use math and science like a stick against history, literature, art or philosophy.
Yet, as McCullough has said, the keepers of academic gates in these fields are their own worst enemies. Too many history books are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense. There are certainly exceptions among the authors — the witty Patricia Limerick at the University of Colorado, the prolific Douglas Brinkley at Rice. And I defy anyone to read Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great (enlightened German teenager takes over Russia) or Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts (Nazis, oozing evil in diplomatic circles) and not come away moved.
But into the great void between readable histories and snooze-fest treatises have stepped demagogues with agendas, from Glenn Beck and his paranoid writings on the perils of progressivism to Oliver Stone and his highly selective retelling of the 20th century.
One of my best friends in college ripped through chemistry, engineering and advanced calculus courses, and then, degree in hand, felt strangely uncompleted. On his own, and for a full year, he read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald and Civil War histories. He spent the next 30 years at Boeing. No doubt he was one of the few mechanical engineers who not only was aware of Faulkner's immortal line "The past is never dead. It's not even past" but understood what it meant.
Timothy Egan is the author of several books, including "The Worst Hard Time," a history of the Dust Bowl, for which he won the National Book Award, and most recently, "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America."
© 2012 New York Times