LETTER TO THE EDITOR: History lessons lacking in US schools

How well is history been taught in American schools? The stress these days are on science, technology and math, which are of course important — but is history being shortchanged?

When I retired to Delaware after a life in education I substituted in local districts. In one school I observed a teacher preparing students for statewide testing. “What you need to remember,” she said emphatically, “about that war is ‘1861-1865’- and ‘Lincoln and Grant; Davis and Lee.’ If they ask you anything about Civil War, that will be it. Now let’s go over westward expansion.”

Under pressure of testing, this “teacher” had reduced our nation’s story to a dry recitation of meaningless consonants, vowels and numbers. No wonder “history” is often cited as the least popular subject by students in American high schools. It is not the subject that is the problem; it is the way it is often being taught!

I of course met many excellent Delaware history teachers, all of whom were as equally horrified by the incident I related. None, however, doubted that what I had seen was anything but an accurate, common and widespread occurrence, and all agreed that the neglect of this essential subject is hurting our country.

Washington, for example, emphasized the importance of teaching our nation’s values, and Lincoln argued that the best way to instill democratic commitment and values is American history. Many people today argue that the lack of knowing who we are and what we stand for, all an intrinsic part of our nation’s history, is a serious problem among American youth.

To me, the past is full of fascinating people and thought-provoking incidents, and that our educational leaders need to address and reinvigorate the teaching of history. I believe that a good teacher can make history interesting, often by focusing on events that are directly relevant to the present.

In early 1865, Abraham Lincoln was one of the first Americans who made use of a sleeping compartment on a train. While the bed supplied was reputedly too short for his 6-foot 4-inch frame, he heartedly endorsed the sleeping car concept. It was developed by his friend and longtime supporter George Pullman, and became an “overnight” success.

Pullman made a point of hiring African-Americans to service his sleeping cars and trains.

Some have argued that he did this, not because of that friendship but because former slaves had experience providing luxury accommodations in southern mansions. In any case it was welcome at the time by his new employees, as good jobs were scarce for newly liberated slaves. After Pullman died, Robert Lincoln, the son of the slain president, was chosen as the best man to carry on the Pullman legacy, and became the company CEO.

In Feb. 19, 1900, a young black intellectual man travelling through the South was turned down when he tried to buy a sleeping car ticket because of his race. The young man contacted his mentor and the nation’s most prominent African-American leader, Booker T. Washington,

Booker T. Washington believed in educational advancement as the key to improving the condition of African Americans, but occasionally and less publically lent his weight to other efforts on behalf of his constituency. Washington sent a letter requesting a meeting between a committee of black leaders and the Pullman company president. He assured the young scholar that he would be successful in reversing that policy, as he was appealing to — of all people — Abraham Lincoln’s son.

There was a problem, however, that Washington had not anticipated. Robert was decidedly not like his father. For example, when Abraham Lincoln told his often corny jokes, Robert Lincoln was embarrassed. At one time when his father entertained tiny Tom Thumb, Robert accused him of making the White House a laughingstock and refused to attend the ceremony.

Many felt that Robert was “more Todd than Lincoln” — that is, he took after the Todds — his mother’s aristocratic and slave-owning ancestry — and not the more countrified, equalitarian-minded Lincoln. Abraham once said that “while one final d” was enough for God, it was not enough for the Todd family, which needed two.” Historians and contemporaries also noted the differences and subsequent strained relationship between Robert and his father.

To Booker T. Washington’s surprise, Robert Lincoln refused to meet with him and his delegation! It was a humiliating defeat for Washington. He never even got a chance to present his arguments, and the decision to prohibit blacks from the use of sleeping cars as company policy in the South continued.

The young black scholar who precipitated this incident and was refused a ticket was W.E.B. Dubois. He was a Harvard-educated well respected scholar, both here and overseas. The two men, Washington and Dubois, were both dedicated to their people and both were brilliant, but they differed in temperament and history. While Washington was born a slave in 1856, Dubois, was born in 1868 — after the Civil War — and represented a younger and perhaps more impatient generation.

In a few short weeks he would publically break with his mentor Washington and chart a new course, which would, over the years, be increasingly endorsed by the African American Community. While W. E. B. Dubois never disavowed Washington’s commitment to education, he openly challenged America’s many racial problems. He believed that Jim Crow was unconstitutionally wrong and needed to be confronted in the streets, in the courts and by means of the ballot box.

DuBois, along with other like-minded whites and African Americans, would form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — the NAACP — the nation’s premier civil rights organization. The NAACP in the future successfully challenged segregation in the military, in housing, and in schools. The Pullman Sleeping Car incident today is largely forgotten, but it was the beginning of one of the most important chapters in American history.

Interested in history? Intrigued by history instruction that is about people and events? On Thursday, March 15 at 4 p.m, the Dover Library’s History Book Club will focus on Alexander Hamilton, his life and other “persons of interest.” For more information on this article or the meeting, call Larry Koch at 335-8344.

Larry Koch

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