WHEN THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION last week released the results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress -- "the Nation's Report Card" -- the bottom line was depressingly predictable: Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in US history, and the percentage declines as students grow older. Only 20 percent of 6th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrate a solid grasp on their nation's history. In fact, American kids are weaker in history than in any of the other subjects tested by the NAEP -- math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics.
How weak are they? The test for 4th-graders asked why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure in US history and a majority of the students didn't know. Among 8th-graders, not even one-third could correctly identify an advantage that American patriots had over the British during the Revolutionary War. And when asked which of four countries -- the Soviet Union, Japan, China, and Vietnam -- was North Korea's ally in fighting US troops during the Korean War, nearly 80 percent of 12th-graders selected the wrong answer.
Historically illiterate American kids typically grow up to be historically illiterate American adults. And Americans' ignorance of history is a familiar tale.
When it administered the official US citizenship test to 1,000 Americans earlier this year, Newsweek discovered that 33 percent of respondents didn't know when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, 65 percent couldn't say what happened at the Constitutional Convention, and 80 percent had no idea who was president during World War I. In a survey of 14,000 college students in 2006, more than half couldn't identify the century when the first American colony was founded at Jamestown, the reason NATO was organized, or the document that says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Numerous other surveys and studies confirm the gloomy truth: Americans don't know much about history.
Somewhere in heaven, it must all make Harry Truman weep.