Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Don't Know Much About ...

It never seems to amaze Americans that apparently none of them knows much about anything, and they are outraged as they point fingers ... or they just laughingly dismiss it because they don't really care. Whenever new polls reveal how little students are learning or how many college students need remediation or how few Americans are really informed on the pertinent issues in an election, there is brief coverage and even cries of doom and gloom. And then Americans go back to their daily lives because they know as much as they need to know to live the lives they are reasonably satisfied living.

However, we are a curious people. And we sometimes want to know what it is we need to know. And this phenomenon has been quite lucrative to some innovative writers and thinkers over the years. Most notable is a man named Kenneth C. Davis, who twenty years ago published a book called Don't Know Much about History which spent thirty-five weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Davis - a man who never graduated college - had a knack for distilling the complex details of the nation's history down into digestible tidbits written in a clever voice that gave people the basic knowledge they might want to know about the Boston Tea Party or the New Deal or Brown vs the Board of Education.

Of course, some will criticize Davis as being a hack who dummies down true liberal arts knowledge. And, in many ways, he may be the pioneer of the "For Dummies" books. Years ago, I got into a small spat with a fellow teacher after my freshman students were complaining about the notoriously heavy and convoluted American history text they had to lug around. I grabbed Davis' book off the shelf and recommended the school switch its required text because Davis' book had "all they were going to remember anyway." Probably an imprudent choice of words.

Anyway, these days, Davis has built himself a nice cottage industry of "Don't Know Much About ..." books. And I wonder how history should judge his contribution.

1 comment:

Happy Elf Mom said...

Ah, good for him! I will have to check that out! For younger children, do look at the "Story of the World" series. You can see sample pages on Amazon, maybe, to get a feel for what I am talking about.

Elf's social studies text was over 1000 pages! In fifth grade! And much of that was stories along the lines of "your mom is going to work and she hopes her new boss will be fair" in discussing ERA. Um, doesn't give one ounce of credit to people who had concerns about it. (I still do; only think what people would do to ladies drafted in the Army were there a war, yes?)