Historical ignorance

Posted Dec. 29, 2009, at 6:55 p.m.

American students fall short of proficiency in their knowledge and understanding of their nation’s history. The finger of blame, a new study concludes, must be pointed at the very adults charged with teaching them history.

Bob Holland, a senior fellow with the nonprofit, Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, found that in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, just one-quarter of children were proficient in their knowledge of U.S. history. But even more shocking were the findings about adult knowledge of history.

“While 60 percent of the adults surveyed knew how many children ‘Jon and Kate’ of reality TV fame have,” Mr. Holland said, “only slightly more than half of them could correctly identify James Madison as the ‘Father of the Constitution’ from a list where the other choices were Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.”

And worse yet, Mr. Holland said, is that public school teachers often lack proficiency in history.

Mr. Holland and others believe the lack of a historical knowledge base among younger Americans means potentially dire consequences for the nation. “If you don’t know about our Bill of Rights, how can our core values be preserved?” he asks.

To a degree, Mr. Holland and those sympathetic to his view seem to believe there should be a kind of bias in public schools toward American history. The great struggle to create this country, from the break with Great Britain, the defense of independence in the War of 1812, the drive to suppress native people and expel French and Spanish colonial forces and expand westward, and the effort to preserve the Union during the Civil War are seen as having the power to inspire people to become better citizens.

Instead, Mr. Holland says, schools eschew dates and historical figures for teaching critical thinking. The focus is on process, and on “constructiveness,” he says, in which students create their own understanding of history. A multicultural approach, and “a fear of not seeming to be inclusive” drives schools to avoid presenting what might be seen as the greatest hits of American history.

A knowledge of history is critical to understanding our current challenges. But that history must be unvarnished. To understand Osama bin Laden today, we must know his role as a U.S. ally when he fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. To understand the health care debate, we must know about the political struggles to create Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. To understand the response to today’s deep recession, we must know about government’s response in the 1930s to the Great Depression.

The Patriot Act must be weighed against President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. The hyperbole of talk radio must be weighed against the “yellow journalism” of the 1890s. The same-sex marriage debate must be weighed against the opposition to teaching evolution in the 1920s.

The Old Testament’s King Solomon wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But knowing what happened yesterday can inform the response to tomorrow.

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