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The Importance of History

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released its 2010 “report card” on the command of history our fourth, eighth, and 12th graders have. The results are not encouraging. Over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam. (NAEP defines three achievement levels for each test: “basic” denotes partial mastery of a subject; “proficient” represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and “advanced” means superior performance.)

The tests were given last spring to a representative sample of 7,000 fourth graders, 11,800 eighth graders and 12,400 12th graders nationwide, with history being one of eight subjects covered by NAEP (the others are math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography and economics). The nation’s eighth graders posted gains in American history achievement compared with four years ago, while at the fourth and 12fth grades, we saw no statistically significant changes since 2006.

It turns out history is the worst subject for American students (economics is the best). For examples, most fourth graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War. Diane Ravitch, an education expert, drew special attention to the low scores for high school seniors.

“It should concern us all that 12th graders’ knowledge of history has barely changed since 2001,” she said. “All of these students will be voters in a year, and almost 40 percent were already eligible to vote when they took the assessment. … They should be well informed and capable of weighing the contending claims of candidates, especially when the candidates rest their arguments on historical precedent.”

Indeed they should. And among other things, we need to better demonstrate to students what it is they are missing. The historian and literary critic Bernard DeVoto, in writing to Catherine Drinker Bowen on why the task of a historian is so important, said this:

If the mad, impossible voyage of Columbus or Cartier or La Salle or Coronado or John Ledyard is not romantic, if the stars did not dance in the sky when our Constitutional Convention met, if Atlantis has any landscape stranger or the other side of the moon any lights or colors or shapes more unearthly than the customary homespun of Lincoln and the morning coat of Jackson, well, I don’t know what romance is. Ours is a story mad with the impossible; it began as a dream and it has continued as dream down to the last headlines you read in a newspaper.

History is about increasing knowledge, of course, and there is romance and drama in it, as DeVoto understood. But history also introduces us to ourselves. It connects us to our country, its achievements and failures, its heroes and villains, its ideals and aspirations. It is the sine qua non of democratic citizenship.

In 1986 then Secretary of Education William Bennett, in a speech on the importance of history, ended his remarks with these powerful words:

Americans are heirs to a precious historical legacy. Let it never be said of us that we failed as a nation because we neglected to pass on this legacy to our children. Whatever our ancestry of blood, we are all equally heirs to the same tradition. In one sense we all have the same fathers – our Founding Fathers. Let it be said that we told our children their story, and the whole story, the long record of our glories, of our failures, of our aspirations, our sins, our achievements and our victories. Then let us leave them to determine their own view of it all: America in the totality of its acts. If we can dedicate ourselves to that endeavor, I am confident that our students will discern in the story of their past the truth. And they will cherish that truth. And it will keep them free.

Right now we’re failing to pass on this legacy to our children. That inflicts a cost on them and on all of us.


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