A few weeks ago, several friends and I braved the impending rainstorm and went to the National Book Festival on the Washington Mall. The purpose of attending -- besides the obvious reason of wanting to stand in the company of Hollywood actors, renowned historians and poet laureates -- was to hear David McCullough speak. As one of the nation’s most prolific writers, and author of numerous biographies including John Adams and Truman -- David McCullough is also one of only a handful of Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
While there was always an interest, it wasn’t until I read his seminal work 1776 that I developed a genuine appreciation for American history. This short book, which exemplifies his unrivaled ability to present dense subject matter into riveting and lucid prose -- should be required reading in public schools as an authoritative text on George Washington and his generals during the most significant year of the American Revolution.
Yet, after arriving at the crowded venue, and expecting to hear a scholarly lecture on his latest book – The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris -- I was surprised to hear him speak about the condition of U.S. public schools, and in particular how students lack a basic understanding of American history. Incidentally, the reason people were often thrilled to read his books, he said, was because they had never learned about these important subjects in school.
Nonetheless, after investigating what I imagined to be an exaggerated contention, I was appalled by what I discovered:
Apparently U.S. students are unfamiliar with the famous paraphrased aphorism, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s because a new report shows that students anywhere from high school to fourth grade are solely lacking in their knowledge of American history.
Results from the 2010 gold standard of testing, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 13 percent of the nation’s high school seniors showed proficiency in their knowledge of American history, and only 18 percent of eighth grades and 22 percent of fourth graders scoring as well.