Trustees | General Education

History remains a mystery for far too many Americans

NORTHWEST HERALD   |  March 11, 2019 by Kurt Begalka

A recent article in “The Federalist” underscored a disturbing educational trend: Students are increasingly ignorant about U.S. history.

The sobering statistics disclosed include:

• 24 percent of Americans older than 18 visited a historic site in 2012 – a 13 percent drop from 1982.

• Only 20.5 percent of Americans between ages 18 and 24 visited a historic site in 2012 – down 8 percent compared with a decade before.

• A 2014 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 18 percent of American high school students were proficient in U.S. history.

Benjamin Schmidt of Northeastern University found that history has witnessed a dramatic decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded.

“In 2008, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 34,642 majors in history; in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was 24,266. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of history majors fell by over 1,500,” Schmidt wrote.

An article in Education Week noted, “Fifteen states require students to take a U.S. history exam, compared to 19 states for civics. But students are not necessarily required to pass some of these exams and, in the case of civics, the assessment used in some states is essentially a version of the 100-question test taken by immigrants seeking citizenship status.”

A 2016-17 report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni titled “What Will They Learn” found that although about 98 percent of college graduates 65 and older knew that the president could not establish taxes, only about 74 percent of college graduates between ages 25 and 34 answered correctly.

Also, a third of college graduates could not identify the Bill of Rights as a name given to a group of constitutional amendments; about 60 percent of survey respondents knew that the U.S. Constitution establishes the division of powers between the states and the federal government; less than 
20 percent could accurately identify (in a multiple-choice survey) the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation; 
39 percent did not know Franklin Roosevelt was the president during World War II; and about 62 percent could not identify the correct length of congressional terms.

With that in mind, it’s little wonder that only 35.2 percent of voters went to the polls for the city of Chicago’s mayoral primary. Since 1990, the high-water mark for voter turnout in Chicago was in 2008 (43.3 percent), and the worst was in 2000 (23.1 percent).

During the recently completed Illinois gubernatorial election, 48 percent of McHenry County voters cast ballots. They will get another opportunity to improve during the April 2 primary.

“There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country,” President John F. Kennedy wrote. “Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world.”


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