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Carson students deserve better history lesson

Ron Knecht

I love America because I know well her history and how she differs from other countries, and, as a consequence, I know that she is by far the greatest nation.

Immigrants often appreciate these things from hard experience elsewhere before coming here. Americans raised here can know them if they have good grounding in history, which I got in my schooling.

However, many Carson High School students are being denied that advantage that their parents enjoyed.

Carson High’s course description catalog shows that it teaches American history starting only with Reconstruction in 1865; that is, after the Civil War. Under Nevada state standards, the full span of American history is prescribed for high school.

Proponents of Carson’s approach contend, for one thing, that students study the earlier history in middle school, and thus do not need to revisit it. On that basis, one need not teach American history at all in high school, because middle school covers its full span.

What’s lost in truncating high school history instruction this way is the heart of what makes America special, unique and great: those lessons so deep and far-reaching that they are not grasped by middle school students, who must first learn the basics, such as:

1) America is great because, alone among nations, she was founded on the primacy of the individual and on explicit social contracts as an open society based on the rule of law and offering welcome and citizenship to all who are here legally. After 230 years, we take these things for granted. The best way to understand them is to review the tyranny of King George III and the ideas of John Locke and others that inspired Thomas Jefferson and his peers.

2) Created as a democratic republic, ours was also the first nation to promulgate broad guarantees of liberty (individual freedoms and rights for citizens and some for non-citizens) as a counter-measure to protect us from tyranny by majorities and by those in government. Again, we take for granted our First Amendment rights, for example, and they are best understood in the context of the events and history that gave rise to the Bill of Rights.

3) Very importantly, broad rights of contract and protection of private property make our nation constitutionally a mostly market economy. This fact is directly responsible for our superior long-run economic growth and resulting highest levels in the world of human well-being. As an economist, I know that economic freedom enriches and ennobles people, while statist excess impoverishes and oppresses them, one of the most important and under-appreciated lessons, and one requiring a sophisticated presentation of long history.

4) Other innovative and central elements of limited government, and thus of our success, are our separation of powers (and related checks and balances) and federalism. History up through the Civil War is perhaps the most illuminating on these matters.

These underpinnings of “American exceptionalism” are rooted in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and early history, and can’t be understood by jumping in four score and nine years later. In fact, these matters and their consequences amazed the world well before the Civil War, as reflected in Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 book, Democracy in America.

Contrary to the department’s claims, these truly historical matters are also not well covered in required civics classes, which have a full plate without the historic aspects.

Only with a full knowledge of American history, as history, can one truly appreciate the words of the annual Wall Street Journal Thanksgiving editorial: “America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.”

It’s quite practical to cover the full span of American history in a year, as my high school history class did – even though 39 eventful years have been added to our history since I took the course. In fact, as I learned in serving on the district’s social science textbook selection committee this year, standard texts still include the entire span.

Under the department’s practice, our students are being short-changed. If you’re concerned about this, Trustee Sheila Ward welcomes your calls at 883-1362.

n Ron Knecht, an economist and policy analyst, registered engineer, and law school graduate, also teaches college economics and is Carson City Republican chairman.