Trustees | General Education

Don’t Forget U.S. Heritage

NEWS-PRESS   |  July 7, 2011 by Anne D. Neal

Make no mistake about it: Americans have historical amnesia. In 2000, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that over one-third of college seniors were unable to identify the U.S. Constitution as establishing the division of powers in American government.

Less than a quarter could correctly identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” Fewer than a third knew that George Washington was the general at Yorktown. (Most answered Ulysses Grant.) And our recent research in “What Will They Learn?“, shows that fewer than a fifth of American schools expect college graduates to study American history or government before they graduate. Is it any wonder that citizens don’t know their history?

If that weren’t bad enough, high schools are also failing at the task. Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducted by the U.S. Department of Education report that 55 percent of high school seniors fail to demonstrate even a “basic” knowledge of U.S. history. Meanwhile, NAEP performance indicators have registered no statistical improvement among 12th-graders since 2006.

Preservation of American memory must be a first priority, and our schools and universities should take the lead. The preservation of memory is not schools’ task alone. In a 2008 study entitled E Pluribus Unum, ACTA wrote that “on the Fourth of July, we need not only celebrate with fireworks, but also honor that dramatic moment when the colonists first declared to the nations of the world that America was free and independent.” We called for the restoration of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays as distinctive celebrations, touchstones of national identity and educational opportunities.

So, imagine our pleasure at seeing that members of Congress have heard the call. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., whose congressional district includes Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and others in June introduced a bill, H.R. 2268, that would restore George Washington’s birthday as a national holiday.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Washington’s birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. Though still officially designated “Washington’s Birthday,” Americans know it as “Presidents Day.”

By introducing the bill, the legislators acknowledge a national problem. And they share a concern raised by President James Buchanan in 1860, and cited by Representative Wolf, that “when the birthday of Washington shall be forgotten, liberty will have perished from the earth.”

Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a donor-supported nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence in higher education.


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