By Jenna Robinson
With the rise of K-12 history curricula that fail to teach children about American history and the foundations of Western Civilization and often actively undermine students’ appreciation of their national heritage, the authors of a new report propose a 490 B.C. Project to redress the balance.
“When Americans knew classical history, they could reach beyond partisan differences by drawing on the shared roots of our civilization,” write the authors of the new policy report released by the Independent Institute last month.
“Without classical knowledge, Americans are likely to misconstrue the achievements of 1776—not to mention other significant historical moments (as evidenced in recent inconclusive contentions over the events of 1619),” the authors write. “Unfortunately, contemporary school curricula leave students with major gaps in their knowledge of classical history and the humanities more broadly.”
Morgan E. Hunter, a research fellow at the Independent Institute and the report’s lead author, explained why that date was chosen, speaking on an upcoming Heartland Daily Podcast.
“490 was the year of the famous battle of Marathon where the Athenians almost miraculously, singlehandedly defeated the invading Persian Empire,” Hunter said. “It seems sort of appropriate as a symbolic encapsulation of everything that’s valuable for understanding our civilization and political institutions.”
The report was coauthored by Independent Institute Senior Fellow Williamson M. Evers and Victor Davis Hanson, who is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
The report identifies two related problems. First, that teaching content, in general, has been pushed aside in favor of focusing on skills in our K-12 schools. And second, the high school history curriculum includes very little Greco-Roman history or reading in the classics.
The report documents the history behind skills-focused instruction. It started in the early twentieth century when history was replaced with “social studies.” Progressive education reformers at the time alleged that “abstract instruction in history” wasn’t relevant for students from working-class families. It was believed, says Hunter, that social studies would help such students “function practically in modern society.”
Hunter speculates that schools have continued to neglect history content, despite evidence that cultural literacy is essential to learning, in order to avoid controversy. “Specifying what content to include would be controversial…. The anodyne lowest common denominator idea is to focus just on skills,” Hunter said.
The literature curriculum has the same problem, Hunter says. In California, for example, there is no fixed list of books that students should read at any point. Hunter says that Common Core has made the focus on skills to the exclusion of content even worse.
And to the extent that history content is taught—mostly in high school—classics aren’t included. Examining history curricula in several states and private schools, Hunter and her coauthors found that most students get very little education in Greco-Roman history. In California, for example, students study ancient history in the sixth grade. But in other states, the classical world is just one small part of the course in world history, which covers everything from paleolithic man to the present.
“It’s very hard to generalize about what students are learning [in high school],” Hunter said. “The state has these extremely vague curriculum goals. Districts are completely free to choose their own textbooks and set their own reading lists and curriculum.”
In response to multiculturalist critics’ charge that studying the classics is “Eurocentric,” and therefore bad, Hunter says giving “Greco-Roman history a privileged position as uniquely relevant and important” does not imply that it is “superior or more interesting than other great world cultures.”
“It’s not logistically feasible for students to study all these great, worthy civilizations at the same level of depth, and if you try to teach everything, you’ll end up teaching nothing,” Hunter said. “For understanding our own political institutions and the culture in which people living in America [are] embedded, Greco-Roman culture is more relevant. In order to understand what’s going on now, the issues and debates, you have to put them in historical perspective.”
Hunter, Evers, and Hanson propose a practical way to reintroduce the classics into American schools. First, they say, any Greco-Roman history taught in middle schools should be more story-like and engaging. It should “teach the legend” in preparation of more in-depth study in high school.
American high schools, Hunter says, should adopt the UK’s GCSE and A-level courses on classics in translation. These courses “have been very successful whenever they’ve been introduced” and “don’t require studying the languages,” Hunter said.
The report concludes by quoting Edith Hall, the Gaisford Lecturer at Oxford University: “The failure to include classical civilization among the subjects taught in every secondary [school] deprives us and our future citizens of access to educational treasures which can not only enthrall, but also fulfill what Jefferson argued … was the main goal of education in a democracy: to enable us to defend our liberty.”
It is, indeed, time for a “490 B.C. Project.”