Trustees | General Education

Hamilton Is A Hit On Broadway, But Not In The Classroom

FORBES   |  January 29, 2016 by David Davenport

One of the reported crises of the recent East Coast blizzard was the cancellation of two showings of the hip hop musical “Hamilton,” which is the hottest ticket on Broadway. People who had paid well over face value for tickets had to deal with the probability they would not receive a full refund or find seats again any time soon.

Sadly, however, Americans have a better chance of getting a hot ticket to the musical than leaving high school or college with any knowledge about Alexander Hamilton or his role in American history. The sad state of civic and history education in our country has reached crisis proportions and is a growing threat to the health of the republic.

The latest NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test results from spring, 2015 showed that only 18% of 8th grade students were “proficient” or better in history and only 23% in civics or government. Perhaps even more shocking, only 1% were “advanced” in history and 2% in civics. Last year, a poll of 18-34 year olds found that 77% could not name one of their home state U.S. Senators. A 2012 survey by Xavier University concluded that only one-third of Americans could pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test, while the immigrant pass rate is 97.5%.

Earlier this month, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reminded us that our colleges are doing no better at this than K-12 education. Their report, “A Crisis in Civic Education,” is full of college student ignorance about civics: nearly 60% did not know how to amend the Constitution, almost half did not know the length of terms in Congress, and 40% were unaware that Congress is the branch with the power to declare war.

If the aphorism sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln is true—“the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next”—then America’s future looks grim, indeed. As Carly Fiorina, the only presidential candidate talking about this, said, “We are no longer educating our citizens.”

How did we arrive at such a sad state? In broad strokes, as Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Meira Levinson put it, civics “is not a priority” in America’s schools. And it’s been getting worse. In 2011, federal funding for civics education was completely eliminated, zeroing out $35 million of support. In 2013, the 4th and 12th grade national testing in civics was eliminated, leaving only the 8th grade test. All that makes quite a statement, especially in an era when schools are strapped for money and teaching to the test.

Meanwhile, other “crises” in education are winning the race for time and money, especially literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. For example, the U.S. Department of Education has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in STEM and, at the White House Science Fair last March, President Obama announced over $240 million in private grants to STEM. Alas, we will have students who can count, but who don’t know what counts.

Another contributor to the problem is that teachers are graduating without a good grasp of U.S. history and civics themselves. Roger Beckett, Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center, correctly points out that “teachers spend too much time learning the mechanics of teaching and not enough time learning what to teach.” Indeed, most colleges (82% according to the recent ACTA survey) do not require a single course in American history or government.

When he was President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel famously said “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Some states are awakening to the problem and requiring civics courses and testing. The recent Every Student Succeeds Act will add back some federal funding in 2017. It’s a start, but we need much more. Otherwise, just as Alexander Hamilton is being pushed out of the center of the $10 bill, our national memory is being pushed out of the curriculum.


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