Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, American history is an irreversible force, ever-progressing and changing the course of human history. Within the past five years alone, America established the first modern democratic state in the Middle East and elected the first African-American president in history. Yet, as students made their way back into America’s classrooms this fall, studies show that our children are less interested in history than ever before.In 2005, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough testified before the U.S. Senate that American history was the nation’s worst subject. Two years later, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) confirmed McCullough’s findings.
And recently, Diane Ravitch of New York University said, “Every national assessment has shown that students don’t know history … scores for U.S. history are consistently the lowest of any subject tested; typically more than half of high school seniors score ‘below basic,’ the lowest possible rating. In no other subject do a majority of students register so little knowledge of a subject taught in school.”
It is a sad and telling diagnosis of America’s conscience. How can we expect the next generation of Americans to protect and defend the country’s legacy if they do not know their own history? Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” Our country’s very freedom and future hinges on education. How can we ask our children to fight, and perhaps die, for a country they do not know?
America’s love for history has always been self-propelled. Long before the ivory towers of pedagogy there were the log cabins of self-education. Men like Abraham Lincoln were voracious readers, often going to great lengths to get their hands on, and minds around, the classics. Education wasn’t limited to five days a week, seven hours a day and nine months out of the year; it was an on-going process with children often spending their few spare hours of the day reading under candlelight.