Assessment Opinion

Think Today’s Students Don’t Know History? Try Looking at Students 100 Years Ago

An excerpt from the new book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)
By Sam Wineburg — September 18, 2018 9 min read
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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), Sam Wineburg’s just-published book in which he makes it clear that the current hand-wringing over U.S. students’ ignorance of history is nothing new. It’s a concern that stretches back to at least the early part of the last century when students were similarly challenged by historical recall. The idea that there was ever a “golden age of fact retention” is a myth, writes Wineburg. With some urgency, the book confronts our growing reliance on search engines to do the work that our book reading once did. “Never has so much information been at our fingertips, but never have we been so ill-equipped to deal with it,” Wineburg explains. Our growing challenge with discerning fact from fiction portends trouble for our democracy. Part warning and part roadmap forward, the book comes with guidance on how we can become a better-informed citizenry.

The year the United States entered the First World War witnessed another first: the publication of results from the first large-scale test of historical facts. J. Carleton Bell of the Brooklyn Training School for Teachers and his colleague David F. McCollum tested 1,500 Texas students, from elementary school to college, and published their findings in 1917. They drew up a list of names (including Thomas Jefferson, John Burgoyne, Alexander Hamilton, Cyrus H. McCormick), dates (1492, 1776, 1861), and events (the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision) that history teachers said every student should know. They gave their test at the upper elementary level (5th through 7th grades), in high schools (in five Texas districts: Houston, Huntsville, Brenham, San Marcos, and Austin), and in colleges (at the University of Texas at Austin and two teacher-training institutions, South-West Texas State Normal School and Sam Houston Normal Institute).

Students flunked. They identified 1492 but not 1776; they recognized Thomas Jefferson but conflated him with Jefferson Davis; they lifted the Articles of Confederation from the 18th century and plunked them down in the Confederacy; and they stared blankly at 1846, the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico War, unaware of its significance in Texas history. Nearly all students recognized Sam Houston as the father of the Texas republic but had him marching triumphantly into Mexico City, not vanquishing Antonio López de Santa Anna at San Jacinto.

A sober look at a century of history testing provides no evidence for the ’gradual disintegration of cultural memory.’”

The score at the elementary level was a dismal 16 percent. In high school, after a year of history instruction, students scored a measly 33 percent, and in college, after a third exposure to history, scores barely approached the halfway mark (49 percent). The authors lamented that studying history in school produced only “a small, irregular increase in the scores with increasing academic age.” Anticipating jeremiads by secretaries of education and op-ed columnists a half century later, Bell and McCollum indicted the educational system and its charges: “Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take great pride.”

By the next world war, hand-wringing about students’ historical benightedness had become front-page news. “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen,” proclaimed The New York Times headline on April 4, 1943, a day when the main story reported that George Patton’s troops had overrun those of Erwin Rommel at El Guettar. Providing support for the earlier claim made by historian Allan Nevins that “young people are all too ignorant of American history,” the survey showed that a scant 6 percent of the 7,000 college freshmen could identify the 13 original colonies, while only 15 percent could place William McKinley as president during the Spanish-American War. Less than a quarter could name two contributions of Thomas Jefferson. Mostly, students were flummoxed. Abraham Lincoln “emaciated the slaves” and, as first president, was father of the Constitution. A graduate of an Eastern high school, responding to a question about the system of checks and balances, claimed that Congress “has the right to veto bills that the President wishes to be passed.” According to students, the United States expanded territorially by purchasing Alaska from the Dutch, the Philippines from Great Britain, Louisiana from Sweden, and Hawaii from Norway. A Times editorial excoriated those “appallingly ignorant” youths.

The Times’ breast-beating resumed in time for the bicentennial celebration, when the newspaper commissioned a second test, this time with Bernard Bailyn of Harvard University leading the charge. With the aid of the Educational Testing Service, the Times surveyed nearly 2,000 freshmen on 194 college campuses. On May 2, 1976, the results rained on the bicentennial parade: “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.” Of the 42 multiple-choice questions on the test, students averaged an embarrassing 21 correct—a failing score of 50 percent. The low point for Bailyn was that more students believed that the Puritans guaranteed religious freedom (36 percent) than understood religious toleration as the result of rival denominations seeking to cancel out each other’s advantage (34 percent). This “absolutely shocking” response rendered the voluble Bailyn speechless: “I don’t know how to explain it.” Results from subsequent history tests (1987, 1994, 2001, 2006, 2010, and 2014) from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) deviated little from earlier trends. When the first NAEP history test was administered in 1987, Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn blasted students’ “shameful” ignorance and issued dire warnings of impending decline. Unless we change course, young people, they predicted, will be unable to “stand on the shoulders of giants” because they won’t be able to tell “who are giants and who are pygmies.”

Fourteen years later, in the wake of the 2001 NAEP, pundits trotted out the same stale indictments (“a nation of historical nitwits,” snarled the Greensboro News and Record); the same holier-than-thou condemnations (“dumb as rocks,” hissed The Weekly Standard); and the same boy-who-cried-wolf predictions of doom at the doorstep (young people’s ignorance is particularly dangerous “when the United States is at war and under terrorist threat”). Ironically, the 2001 test followed a decade of the standards movement and a relentless push to raise the bar. Yet, inexplicably, results were identical to those from earlier tests. Six in 10 seniors “lack even a basic knowledge of American history,” wrote The Washington Post, results that NAEP officials castigated as “awful,” “unacceptable,” and “abysmal.” “The questions that stumped so many students,” groused then-secretary of education Rod Paige, “involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation, and our role in the world.” As for the efficacy of standards in the states that adopted them, the test yielded no differences between students whose teachers reported adhering to standards and those who did not. Remarked a befuddled Paige, “I don’t have any explanation for that at all.”

Doom and gloom display astonishing resilience. After the 2014 National Assessment, headline writers fished into the recycling bin to pull out old standbys like “U.S. Students Stagnate in Social Studies” and “Most 8th Graders Score Low on U.S. History, Civics.” More than half of 8th grade students couldn’t identify the precedent set by Marbury v. Madison, something that the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board condemned as “unacceptable.” The president of the National Council for the Social Studies raised the volume, linking test results to America’s eroding stature on the world stage: “How do we, as a nation, maintain our status in the world if future generations of Americans do not understand our nation’s history?” However, the prize for the zaniest link between 13-year-olds’ test scores and the ailments of American society goes to Les Francis, the former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. In an article entitled “Civic Ignorance Begets Civic Unrest,” Francis used invisible ink to connect the dots between scores on the 2014 NAEP and the race riots that convulsed Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died from injuries sustained in the back of a police van. Francis diagnosed the problem not as one of police brutality and the simmering racism that infects law enforcement. Rather, he called for a “serious discussion about the possible linkages between ignorance of social studies—history, geography, government, civics, economics—and urban alienation,” adding, forebodingly, “before it is too late.”

To many commentators, what’s at stake goes beyond whether teens can circle the answer that shows they know it was Western ranchers and not Eastern bankers who supported the gold standard. In a blue-ribbon report called “Education for Democracy,” the Albert Shanker Institute pointed to perennially disappointing test results and claimed that “something has gone awry. ... We now have convincing evidence that our students are woefully lacking in knowledge of our past, of who we are as Americans,” indifferent to “the common good,” and disconnected from “the American story.” One has to wonder what evidence this committee “now” possesses that has not been gathering moss since 1917, when Bell and McCollum hand-tallied 1,500 student surveys. Explanations of today’s low scores crumble when applied to results from 1917, the apex of history as part of the school curriculum. No one can accuse the Texas teachers of 1917 of teaching process over content or serving up a tepid social studies curriculum to bored students—back then, the National Council for the Social Studies (founded in 1921) didn’t even exist. Rather than being poorly trained and laboring under harsh conditions with scant public support, Texas teachers were among the most educated members of their communities and commanded wide respect. (“The high schools of Houston and Austin have the reputation of being very well administered and of having an exceptionally high grade of teachers,” wrote Bell and McCollum, a statement hard to imagine being written about today’s urban schools.)

Americans fondly refer to the men and women who fought World War II as the “greatest generation,” the college students who abandoned the safety of the quadrangle for the hazards of the beachhead. Yet it is only in our contemporary mirror that they look “great.” At the time, grown-ups dismissed them as knuckleheads, even doubting their ability to fight. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in May 1942, Allan Nevins questioned whether a historically illiterate army might be a national liability: “We cannot understand what we are fighting for unless we know how our principles developed.”

A sober look at a century of history testing provides no evidence for the “gradual disintegration of cultural memory” or a “growing historical ignorance.” The only thing growing is our amnesia of past ignorance. Test results over the last 100 years point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation’s obsession with testing its young only to discover—and rediscover—their “shameful” ignorance. The consistency of results across generations casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention. Appeals to it are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than claims that can be anchored in the documentary record.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as Historical Illiteracy Is Repeating Itself


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