Our children don't know much of anything about American history.
Big Bird prepares the tots for dancing numbers and letters. Jimmy Kimmel,
host of Comedy Central's "The Man Show," can produce a laugh a minute, but
not about the Boston Tea Party or the Civil War. Our teen-agers can rap,
rock and roll, but they don't have any idea why any of our grandfathers
came to America. Most high school seniors, almost old enough to vote, don't
know why we have a Bill of Rights. They haven't a clue to why slaves were
counted in the Constitution as only three-fifths of a person. Who the
president was who opened diplomatic relations with China is an enduring
The higher the grade, the lower the understanding of history seems to be.
The most recent report card, issued by the National Assessment of
Educational Progress in the United States, finds that more than a third of
our fourth graders, almost 40 percent of the eighth graders, and more than
half of our high-school seniors lack a rudimentary understanding of
As bad as their lack of knowledge of history is, reactions and
rationalizations over the "Nation's Report Card" are more depressing than
the low test scores. Gary B. Nash, a history professor at the UCLA, thinks
our expectations, which seem pretty low to me, are too high.
"I'm not sure we should even expect 18-year-olds to remember dates and
facts and names and places if there's no practical use for that knowledge,"
he told the Los Angeles Times. The only practical knowledge the young need,
apparently, is how to slip a CD into the changer and turn up the volume.
Robert H. Samuelson, a man of common sense, scoffs in The Washington Post,
under the headline "What We Don't Know Won't Hurt Us," at "the alarmist
notion that ignorance threatens our social cohesion or democracy by cutting
us from the roots that define the American experience."
Such optimism ("What? Me worry?") may be momentarily reassuring, but the
problem is that we won't find out until it's too late whether defenders of
our historical deficiencies called it correctly. What's alarming about this
rampant ignorance was spelled out by Roderick R. Paige, the secretary of
Education. "The questions that stumped so many students involve the most
fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation, and our role
in the world," he said. "Our shared history is what unites us as
It certainly doesn't help the situation that more than half the teachers
teaching history to junior and senior high school students didn't major or
minor in history in college. That is crucial because, as smart as they
might be, they haven't a conceptual foundation in the subject and probably
teach more from someone else's lesson plans than from deep knowledge - or
even from shallow knowledge.
The "Nation's Report Card" was issued just as a 125-page paperback, "9-11,"
by the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, became a surprise best-seller,
selling over 160,000 copies in the first few weeks. If anyone takes
advantage of historical ignorance in interpreting American history, Chomsky
does, but lots of people are buying his book. A lot of them would probably
have flunked the history test, too.
Chomsky interprets American history as one long continuum of American
terrorism. He mixes lies with anti-American rhetoric, equating terrorism
against the United States with American military action against communists
in Central America and terrorists in the Middle East. Anyone who has a
minimum of knowledge and understanding of what's really going on in the
world could easily refute his rant, but who knows history?
The First Amendment protects speech and academic freedom, even dumb speech
and foolish uses of academic freedom, but the First Amendment does not
actually require dumb foolishness. The Founding Fathers relied on a modicum
of understanding developed in an educated class.
The public school system was set up to teach the common man (and woman) how
to think and thus how to lead, how to learn from our past by first learning
of the past, all the better shape the future. It hasn't always worked out
that way. But we've nurtured a pride that filtered through facts and
concepts on which our country was built, carefully learned and renewed.
Diane Ravitch, a historian and professor of education at New York
University, is a member of the board that governs the history tests that
identified the Achilles heel (who was he?) of history teaching. "Our
ability to defend - intelligently and thoughtfully - what we as a nation
hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of what we hold dear."
We can't take that for granted, can we?