Editor’s Note: This exclusive back-to-school piece from Bill Bennett first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Townhall magazine. Click here to subscribe and get a free copy of Glenn Beck’s new book, “Arguing With Idiots.”
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.
Today, our textbooks are more intent on political correctness, dulled-down event reporting and universal appeal. The dramatic and realistic story of America is mostly absent in the study of American history. Text authors, publishers and higher education experts have desiccated the rich drama and conflicts of history and replaced them with dry narratives that read more like recipe books and less like thrilling, page-turning novels.
My goal, along with a group of award-winning teachers, is to reverse this precarious trend and reshape the future of history education in America. Known as Team HOPE (History Opens Eyes), we have begun incorporating “America: The Last Best Hope” and other curriculum materials into a comprehensive and compelling narrative about our country. “Last Best Hope” does not look or read like any other textbook. It is the story of a people inextricably linked by the common threads of freedom and virtue, a story of men and women who rallied a great people behind them throughout the course of our nation’s history. In “Last Best Hope,” history is more than rote memorization or tedious facts; it is drama, romance, comedy, mystery, action, tragedy and triumph. I believe in the “warts and all” version of American history—not “warts, and that’s all.” And because of this, our project has been positively reviewed by scholars from all ideological perspectives.
This revolution we are commencing is not limited to classrooms or textbooks. Remember parents: You are a child’s first and most important teacher and the single-most effective Department of Education. President Ronald Reagan said, “Let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” As our children return to school this fall, let us actively engage and encourage their interest in history—from the dinner tables to the classrooms.
If we are to restore America’s love for its rich and great history, we must begin by telling the truth, not in a prosaic, tiresome fashion, but in a captivating and memorable way. Our story is one of great suffering and great triumph; it is what Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.”
As we prepare for the new school year, let us remind our children of America’s true greatness, and in so doing, let us give them a true love story.
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