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Ignorance of History Permeates All Levels

By Walt Gardner — June 22, 2011 2 min read
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The latest test scores in history posted by students in 4th, 8th and 12th grade on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are cited as evidence that public schools are not doing their job. Only 20 percent, 17 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of the students tested demonstrated proficiency (“U.S. Students Remain Poor at History, Tests Show,” The New York Times, June 15).

This is indeed troubling, but if it’s any consolation college students are not doing much better. A brief stroll down memory lane reveals why.

In 2006, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute measured the civic literacy of 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. The test focused mainly on American history and constitutionalism. It reported that the average senior received a failing grade of 54 percent. Worse, many schools showed negative learning, meaning that seniors performed worse than freshmen.

In 2003, the House Education and Workforce Committee reported that some students from elite colleges couldn’t even name the president. One howler came from a student who referred to the prestigious journalism award as the “Pullet Surprise.”

In 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned the University of Connecticut to evaluate the civics knowledge of seniors from the country’s top 55 colleges and universities. Four out of five received a grade of D or F. Only 23 percent, for example, knew that James Madison was the father of the Constitution.

None of the above is intended to excuse the appalling performance of schools in K-12. But it does serve to put the problem into proper context. The question now is what to do. Some have suggested that if history were tested as part of No Child Left Behind, the subject would be given greater emphasis by teachers. No doubt, but I don’t think that is the answer.

There are better solutions. In 2008, the National Endowment for the Humanities developed “We the People” program by investing $75 million to bring 10,000 teachers to workshops at historic sites across the country and created a digital archive of major 19th- and 20th-century newspapers.

More recently, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University designed a website with funding from the Education Department (“Digitized Historical Documents Give Students Direct Access to the Past,” Education Week, June 15). Teachinghistory.org allows students to access primary sources through online databases. Then there is the Center for Civic Education, which includes congressional simulations, and ICivics, which features virtual games to engage students in learning about government (“Making history and civics a priority,” editorial, The Washington Post, June 17).

What about textbooks? Long the mainstay of teaching history, they have unfortunately become so politically correct that it’s necessary to supplement them by other means. David McCullough, author of nine historical books, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, came up with a provocative proposal. In an interview in The Wall Street Journal, he said that the best way to teach history is to teach students how to ask questions - not learn answers (“Don’t Know Much About History,” June 18). McCullough may be right.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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