Knowledge of American History Rapidly Becoming History

Glenn Ricketts

Editor's Note:

This article was originally published here on June 28, 2011.  We re-post it today because of its relevance to our series on the new AP US History standards, and the sharply declining knowledge of American history among high school and college students.

The bad news about history education keeps piling up.   Our recently-released study, The Vanishing West, 1964 – 2010, documents the drastic changes in undergraduate history requirements since our baseline year of 1964.  The once-familiar survey in Western Civilization, or some close equivalent, we found, has simply vanished. It’s been replaced by literally nothing in some cases or a bewildering range of distribution options in most others, including lots of arcane niche courses reflecting faculty research interests. If college students do study history, the chances that they’ll gain any sense of the Big Picture once imparted by the old broad surveys are essentially nil.

 Now on the heels of our report comes the US Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress quadrennial survey, The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2010. As the title indicates, this study measures knowledge of the rudiments of US history among K-12 students at the elementary, middle and secondary levels. The results, to put it as charitably as possible, were dismal. According to data reported in the survey, 20 per cent of fourth grade students, seventeen per cent of eighth graders, and twelve per cent of high school seniors performed well enough to be rated “proficient.”   It looks even worse when you invert those positive figures: eighty per cent of fourth graders, eighty-three per cent of eighth graders and eighty-eight per cent of high school seniors flunked the minimum proficiency rating. And within the senior cohort, a mere two per cent correctly answered a question about the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark. 

I’m not shocked, needless to say, since things have been going south for quite a while. 

Recall for instance Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, released in 2000 by the American Council for Trustees and Alumni. That survey, based on a questionnaire given to students from America’s top 55 colleges and universities, uncovered an astounding ignorance of the basic facts of American history among the best and brightest recent college graduates. Exactly twenty-three per cent of those tested, for example, knew that James Madison was the principal author of the Constitution. At the same time, nearly everyone knew everything about popular culture, and 99% correctly identified Bevis and Butthead (Can’t resist a shot in the dark:  let me guess that the 1% who didn’t recognize them were probably much better informed about US history). 

Mind you, we’re talking here about graduates of Harvard, Williams, Stanford, Princeton, Chicago and other top-tier institutions. Smart kids all, no doubt, but whose expensive educational experience didn’t include much historical knowledge of the country whose institutions some of them will probably come to lead in the future. That’s hard to fathom.   My parents and grandparents, most of whom didn’t attend college, were all easily familiar with the seminal events and personalities that had shaped the course of American history, and they had a handle on the Constitutional system of government which was forged by that experience. Today’s high school and college graduates by and large don’t. What’s wrong? 

Just about everything, really. No matter where you look at history education – grade school, middle school, high school, college or yes, graduate school – things are in sorry, sorry shape. I have no idea how to make it better, either. There’s no single aspect or problem that you can pinpoint, because the chain in this instance consists almost entirely of weak links.

Higher education, of course, has been a goner for a long time, and its decline needs no elaboration here: frankly politicized courses, multicultural saturation, feminism, postmodernism, sexuality (is there anything left to say there?) and now sustainability captured the liberal arts curriculum decades ago and sit astride an empire. Good luck if you want an academic job and you’ve publicly bucked that consensus. Added to this is the weakening and fragmentation of the curriculum already noted.   There are indeed history departments where individual students with a mind to do it can track down solid courses that measure up in both content and scope. The trouble is that there are usually no institutional props in place telling them that such courses are more worthwhile than any other offerings. Britain Since the Glorious Revolution may look good, but it gets no more weight among distribution options than The Evolution of Heavy Metal Lyrics. Take your pick, it’s up to you. 

And American history? Even if you’re a history major, you most likely won’t be required to take much of it, unless it happens to be one of your specialty fields. At one time, it may have been safe to assume that incoming freshmen had a sufficient grounding in US history to make a specific requirement unnecessary.  But those were the days.

All of these tendencies, unfortunately, have long since metastasized to the K-12 schools, which have eagerly embraced them. The same curricular fragmentation, politicization, multiculturalism, focus on contemporary politics etc. are now ascendant there as well. Really, what did you think most aspiring teachers imbibe during their mandatory time in the education schools which monopolize the certification process of virtually all public school systems? Plenty of “social justice” cultural sensitivity and self esteem-based learning, to be sure, but not necessarily the subjects they hope to teach. As historian David McCullough observed recently in the Wall Street Journal, history in K-12 schools is often taught by teachers who don’t know much history. Lots of pedagogy, little reading or writing, videos galore and power point presentations.   Believe it or not, one of the most frequent complaints I get as a community college professor is that I don’t use any “technology” in my courses. “It’s nothing but reading,” one student whined. “We never watch any movies. And we have to write so much too.” If only I were making this up. 

And these kids were graduated from high school? Yes, of course, because as Herbert London notes here, our entire educational system is shot through with fraud from bottom to top: they can’t read or calculate very well, so well we’ll send ‘em to college. Don’t want angry parents coming after us, do we? They’re not prepared for college, so we’ll let ‘em in; remediation should do the trick. We need more graduates, so we’ll teach the students at a level where they can feel comfortable. What’s wrong with service learning or the vast diversity of life experiences students can relate to us? Don’t you think that rates a college degree?   No? Well, this is the New Reality, and we all need to adjust.

As I said, I have no idea what to do about all of this, except to teach my own courses according to standards that seem appropriate for a college education. And I hope and pray we don’t empanel another federal commission to investigate the “crisis in our schools.” Heaven forfend.

But I think I understand pretty well why so many students everywhere don’t know very much about American history.

Image: Public Domain

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