The Dismal State of American History Knowledge in the U.S.
Recently, I was asked to speak at a Lakeland, Florida, Kiwanis meeting. The subject I was given was how much the younger generation knows about American history. The concern over reports of ignorance of America’s past was the impetus for this invitation.
I’ll give the gist of what I said.
I began with an anecdote from a teacher that appeared in Education Week a couple of years ago. She tutors in a poor section of Brooklyn and noted that of all the subjects her students have to pass to receive their high-school diploma, the one they fail most regularly is the American history exam.
A student she calls Tony is typical:
When we first started to study together, Tony, like all my students, had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled since we separated from England more than two centuries ago.
He knew the name Abraham Lincoln, but drew a blank when I asked him which war Lincoln was associated with. He was unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Segregation and civil rights were not concepts he could articulate.
Tony didn’t know how a person becomes the president, he was unaware of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion (he found it abhorrent, by the way), and didn’t know how the government spends its money.
Well, a lot of us are puzzled by that last one.
Another article, in the liberal Huffington Post, no less, highlighted the dismal history scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report. The NAEP regularly assesses knowledge in a number of subject areas; history always does poorly.
Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch summarized the history findings:
It’s worth noting that of the seven school subjects tested by NAEP, history has the smallest proportion of students who score Proficient or above in the most recent assessment available. The results of this assessment tell us that we as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history.
Last year the American Council of Trustees and Alumni studied the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions to see what is required by those higher education establishments with respect to learning American history. Here’s the breakdown:
- Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: 7 require U.S. history
- Top 25 National Universities: 4 require U.S. History
- Top 25 Public Institutions: 14 require U.S. history
- Of the 23 programs that do list a requirement for United States history, 11 allow courses so narrow in scope—such as “History of Sexualities” or “History of the FBI”—that it takes a leap of the imagination to see these as an adequate fulfillment of an undergraduate history requirement.
How’s that for dismal?
One example is George Washington University in Washington, DC, which now has decided that history majors are no longer required to take American history. That’s history majors, not just the run-of-the-mill students in other majors.
Even at my own institution, one that does value American history, most students are only required to take one history course overall, and it can be Western Civilization rather than American. It’s a trend nationwide.
One of our history professors decided to conduct a pre-test of his students’ knowledge of American history before taking his survey courses. What do they already know coming into the university?
Here are the results.
Pre-test results for American History I:
# of Students: 40
# of Passing Scores: 5 (60% or above)
Average Score: 37%
Pre-test results for American History II:
# of Students: 32
# of Passing Scores: 0 (60% or above)
Average Score: 25%
What surprised me most was the lower score for more recent American history. One would think that they would be more attuned to what has happened since the Civil War.
Some of the answers given to specific questions about basic American history facts were rather interesting.
Did you know that Great Britain was our ally in the American Revolution?
Or that the city that became the largest immigration center in the world was either Canada, Mexico, or Alabama?
How about the general whom Lincoln finally found to help end the Civil War? Who knew that was James Madison? I certainly didn’t.
I ended the talk by letting the attendees know they can send their children to me and the other history professors at Southeastern University. We will be glad to get them up to speed.
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