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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 10:39 AM ET, 06/22/2011

Is knowing history so important?

I know we are about to celebrate the Fourth of July. I have seen the fervent demands for better teaching of history after poor results were announced on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress history tests. But I wonder if learning the details of our country’s story is as important as we think it is.

That’s blasphemy, of course. After the awful test results The Washington Post editorialized that “civics should be a priority” and schools should demand “that every student not only pass a course with an intense written evaluation but also address a local problem with a civic intervention in his or her community.”

Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan said, “If the generations coming out of our schools do not know our past, do not know who we are or what we have done as a people, how will they come to love America, refute her enemies or lead her confidently?”

Hmmm. A survey of hundreds of high school and college students just before we entered World War I found they did not know what happened in 1776 and got Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis mixed up. In a history test given to 7,000 college freshmen in 1943 only six percent could name the 13 original colonies, and only 13 percent identified James Madison as president during the War of 1812. Historian Allan Nevins said then that such historical illiteracy could be a liability in beating the Nazis.

Somehow we won both world wars. Many of the college freshmen who said we purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later celebrated as among the Greatest Generation.

Two scholars who have documented our abiding civic ignorance---Sam Wineburg of Stanford and Richard Paxton of Pacific University---point out many problems with the tests on which we base our eruptions of outrage over bad history teaching. Multiple-choice exams are designed to induce lots of wrong answers. If in piloting the NAEP test it is determined that most 12th-graders can identify Rosa Parks, the purpose of Auschwitz and the main cause of the Civil War, Wineburg said in a recent column, then “these items are all thrown out because they fail to ‘discriminate’ among students.”

Wineburg cited an NAEP fourth-grade question that asked why African Americans originally sang a song urging them to “follow the drinkin’gourd, for the old man is awaitin’ for to carry you to freedom.” Only 42 percent picked the alleged right answer, that the song gave directions to escape from slavery by heading north toward the Big Dipper constellation. Yet the question itself was flawed. Wineburg discovered that the line as rendered in the question wasn’t written until 1947 by legendary folk singer Lee Hays, and there is no evidence the song was sung before the end of the Civil War.

We make much of bad test results and idiotic answers to civics questions from the young Americans Jay Leno stops on Los Angeles street corners. It’s fun, but it is also misleading. We are promoting what Paxton calls “the false notion that the biggest problem facing history students today involves the retention of decontextualized historical facts.”

He and Wineburg, both education professors, say we should decide what history is worth knowing and teach it well. “The thousand-page behemoths that we call textbooks violate every principle of human memory that we know of,” Wineburg said.

Emphasizing reading and devoting more school hours to comprehension of the language no matter what the topic might give us the skills to develop an interest in public affairs. Many critics say the subject of history has suffered because schools are giving more time to reading and math. Why then, asks Wineburg, were the students who were most improved on the NAEP history test in fourth grade, where the concentration on reading and math has been greatest?

Even if we haven’t remembered our country’s history so well in the last century, we have learned to appreciate it, and act accordingly. This July 4, that’s worth celebrating.

By  |  10:39 AM ET, 06/22/2011

 
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