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.
These statistics, of course, should concern parents, teachers and local communities across the country. But, at the end of the day, shouldn’t every American care?
We study our own history, at least in part, to commemorate and remember all of those who gave their lives to preserve the liberties and freedoms we cherish as Americans. To forget the suffering of Washington and his army at Valley Forge, the determination of the soldiers at Normandy, or the courage of the passengers aboard Flight 93 would be an affront to their legacy and reflect the narcissism and ingratitude of our own people.
Furthermore, by reducing the importance of U.S. history in public schools, we deprive American children of an opportunity to learn about their heritage. And in so doing, we fail these students by neglecting to adequately educate them. The study of history -- and particularly American history – cultivates an understanding and appreciation for the ideals the nation was founded upon. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed deeply than an educated citizenry was essential to the preservation of the American experiment. After all, how can one expect posterity to preserve American democratic principles if they cannot define what they are?
The notion that American history -- a once a valued subject -- is no longer a priority in public schools is profoundly disconcerting. The denigration of history, in my view, will have dire ramifications as children grow up ignorant and unaware of the essential beliefs which have guided our nation for nearly three centuries.
An undereducated and disengaged public, however, is only the beginning. As David McCullough suggests, a firm understanding of history is paramount to the success and effectiveness of our political leaders:
“All of our best presidents -- without exception -- have been presidents who’ve had a sense of history. Who’ve read history, in some cases who wrote history -- who cared about history and biography. The only obvious two who never went to college would be Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, and both of them read history, in particular, all the time.”
In other words, if the youngest generations of Americans lack a basic understanding of the past, what kind of nation will we be in ten, twenty or even a hundred years from now? What kind of leaders will we produce?
The purpose of the U.S. education system -- and the reason it was established -- is primarily to provide students with the requisite knowledge and skills to live more successful lives. Yet, when we perpetually fail to teach American history in schools, we inevitably weaken the nation because our children grow up without any real sense of a national identity.
And that, in the end, is ultimately what the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish.