Public Says Teach Good and Bad of History

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 25, 2002 2 min read
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Despite a wave of patriotic fervor washing over the country during the past year, most Americans expect schools to teach children the bad as well as the good about U.S. history and government, a survey by Public Agenda reveals.

Read a condensed version of the study ” Knowing It by Heart: Americans Consider the Constitution and its Meaning,” from Public Agenda. The full version requires free registration.

“Put together, these findings show a deep-seated love of country coupled with a realistic view of America’s weaknesses and mistakes,” says a report on the findings, released last week. “And that’s what Americans would like schoolchildren to learn about their nation.”

The survey, “Knowing It by Heart: Americans Consider the Constitution and Its Meaning,” asked a random sample of 1,520 Americans this past July about their knowledge and interpretation of the founding document and how its principles apply to contemporary life.

Nine in 10 respondents said “it’s better to teach the bad with the good, warts and all.” Just 9 percent said that schools should always portray the United States favorably.

That overwhelming response surprised some educators in light of recent calls by some scholars and pundits to promote the positive about America in explaining the events of last Sept. 11.

“This survey suggests that we are certainly much more open and invite looking at multiple perspectives on issues. That’s refreshing,” said Jesus Garcia, a professor of social studies education at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Constitutional Literacy Lacking

The survey also found that while most Americans understand the ideals behind the U.S. Constitution, a gap persists in their recall of the details of that bedrock of American democracy. Many of the respondents, particularly the youngest—56 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29—said that they could not remember how they were taught about the Constitution, or that it was not taught in an engaging way.

“There is evidence that many young Americans are not being turned on to the excitement of early-American history and the gripping tale of the writing of the Constitution,” the report says. “There is also ample evidence that Americans of all ages don’t understand, nor can they articulate, the Constitution’s basic tenets.”

Schools and parents, the report says, would get a disappointing grade for the way they have taught young people about the Constitution and its history.

But Mr. Garcia, the vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md., said many respondents demonstrated impressive insight into how the Constitution protects their collective and individual rights, suggesting that schools are doing a good job of relaying the spirit of the document.

In an attempt to improve history and civics education, President Bush last week unveiled an initiative, “We the People,” calling for an increase in projects that explore history and culture, an annual lecture on “Heroes in History,” and an essay contest for high school juniors. The effort, to be directed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is not related to the national competition of the same name sponsored by the Center for Civic Education.

The Public Agenda survey was commissioned by the National Constitution Center, a Philadelphia-based organization created by Congress to promote active, informed citizenship. Though conducted this past summer, the poll was commissioned before Sept. 11, 2001.

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