ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Ignorance

July 3, 2005 by ACTA

In 2000, ACTA's report on historical illiteracy among American college students, Losing America's Memory, documented a shocking degree of ignorance among the brightest and best educated of this country's young adults. Noting that there was not a single school among America's top 55 colleges and universities that required students to take a course in American history, the report reflected on the wider implications of elite college and university seniors' inability to pass what was essentially a basic high school-level test, one whose questions were heavily drawn from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests given to high school students: "Few students leave high school with an adequate knowledge of American history and even the best colleges and universities do nothing to close the 'knowledge gap,'" the authors observed; "if a hostile power wanted to erase America's civic heritage, it could hardly do a better job--short of actually prohibiting the study of American history--than America's elite colleges and universities are doing."

It's still true that you don't have to take U.S. history to graduate from college--though increasingly you are required to take courses in foreign cultures, and to balance those with courses on cultural diversity in the U.S. The American higher education establishment is making a massive effort to ensure that students graduate with an appreciation of "difference" as defined in terms of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, and it is doing so because administrators and policymakers nationwide agree that appreciating these kinds of differences is essential to a proper liberal arts education. But the problems posed by American undergraduates' documented ignorance about the founding principles and general history of their country are being ignored. The result is frightening indeed if we take seriously Thomas Jefferson's comment that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and what never will be."

But if colleges and universities are able to disregard the serious potential consequences of failing to produce historically aware graduates, the pressure is on for high schools to begin graduating students who have some understanding of what it means to be a citizen of this country. At a Senate hearing last Thursday, educators and historians argued for legislation that would expand national testing to include U.S. history.

National history and civics assessments show that most fourth-graders can't identify the opening passage of the Declaration of Independence, and that most high school seniors can't explain the checks-and-balances theory behind the three branches of the US government. Testifying in favor of proposed legislation, the history specialists--including renowned historian David McCullough--told a Senate education subcommittee that most of the country's schoolchildren lack sufficient knowledge to become informed voters and don't understand why they enjoy rights like free speech and freedom of religion.

''I think we are sadly failing our children, and have been for a long time," said McCullough, America's preeminent popular historian and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for biographies of presidents Harry S. Truman and John Adams. ''I think to bring testing assessment of performance in the grade schools and high schools of public schools nationwide is long overdue."

The American History Achievement Act would budget $14 million so that ten states could test eighth-graders and twelfth-graders. The idea would be to use those tests to draw national attention to the need for more intensive and systematic history curricula in K-12 education. The NAEP, whose questions so brutally stumped college seniors in 2000, would conduct the tests. Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander, who introduced the legislation in April with Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, explains it in detail here.

Link via Joanne Jacobs.

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