Trustees | General Education

Don’t Know Much About History

WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  September 5, 2008 by David Feith

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination before an exuberant crowd of 80,000 at Invesco Field last week, pundits were amazed: Look at all of these young people, gathered to watch a political event, of all things. Certainly, this year’s election–necessitating, as it has, an understanding of terms as obscure as “superdelegate”–has been a great civics lesson for America’s youth. Which is good, because they’re unlikely to learn about civics anywhere else.

Judgments of young Americans’ civic knowledge range from “grim” (Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service) to “abysmal” (Diane Ravitch, New York University historian of education) and “disturbing” (George W. Bush). None is overstating the case. Last year, the Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that less than a quarter of grade-school students are proficient in civics and American history, the subjects meant to prepare them to be responsible citizens.

This sad statistic is part of a trend that goes back many years. In 1990, 84% of eighth-graders knew of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, but only a quarter knew why he had fought the Civil War. Similar results in 1994 led longtime Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham to call the NAEP scores “a coroner’s report . . . [that] returned a finding of mortal ignorance.” And in 2001, civics was the only subject in which more than half of high-school seniors (57%) could not demonstrate even basic knowledge.

Nor are college students much more knowledgeable. When the Intercollegiate Studies Institute assessed the civic literacy of 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities in 2006–asking about American history and constitutionalism, mainly–the average senior received a failing grade of 54%. Many schools even demonstrated “negative learning,” with seniors performing worse than freshmen.

These results coincided with those of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which in 1999 commissioned the University of Connecticut to test the civics knowledge of seniors from the U.S.’s top 55 colleges and universities. Four out of five received a grade of D or F. Only 23% knew that James Madison was the “father of the Constitution,” and more thought it was Ulysses S. Grant who was the victorious general at Yorktown than knew it was George Washington.

Is civics education poor because, as some claim, professional educators–seeking to avoid that dreaded last refuge of scoundrels–encourage “global citizenship” over the American kind? Did the great social advances of the 1960s lead schools to emphasize elements of social history–the realities of racism, gender inequality and labor conditions–at the expense of political history? Is interest in American ideals dulled because, as a 2003 Albert Shanker Institute report charges, in many classrooms “America’s sins, slights, and shortcomings have become not just a piece of the story but its essence”?

The issue of civics education aroused the Bush administration’s attention after 9/11. While most Americans exhibited great patriotism in the wake of the attacks, some others demonstrated a “blame-us mentality,” says John Bridgeland, who oversaw Mr. Bush’s civics efforts as head of the USA Freedom Corps. Seeing this, the administration set out to increase understanding of “the core values, ideas and beliefs that lead millions of people to become Americans, and to equip Americans to defend them going forward.”

Chief among the administration’s initiatives has been the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “We the People” program, which has put $75 million toward “furnishing teachers with the raw material of American history,” as the organization’s chairman, Bruce Cole, explains it. Since 2002, the endowment has brought 10,000 educators to workshops at historic sites nationwide; has supplied 9,000 schools and libraries with classic books; and has launched a digital archive of significant 19th- and early-20th century newspapers, among other projects. In addition, the National Archives and Library of Congress have been making their records and documents increasingly accessible as teaching tools.

“Obviously you can’t dictate what’s taught in the classroom, but you sure can try to inspire it–and at least check incomplete renderings of American history,” Mr. Bridgeland explains. “And the original record is the best and fairest way for young people to get an unbiased view of our history.”

These efforts notwithstanding, the statistics remain damning. Mr. Bush (especially in his first term) has done more to address civic literacy than many of his predecessors, but critics argue compellingly that the administration’s No Child Left Behind provisions undermine any potential focus on civics by holding K-12 teachers accountable mainly for math, reading and science–”what gets tested is what gets taught,” as they say.

Perhaps we should distribute quizzes at the next political rally that packs a football stadium.

Mr. Feith was a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal this summer.


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