Numerous news reports indicate that elementary, middle, and high schools are giving little attention to the study of American history, according to education consultant John Danielson. Professor Katy Swalwell teaches courses in elementary social studies methods at Iowa State University. In an article she published at the National History Education Clearinghouse Web site, Dr. Swalwell noted that “the condition of history in the elementary classroom is one of great concern. History is rarely included as part of the curriculum and, if it is taught, relies upon a conventional and canonical perspective that ignores historical scholarship and excludes multiple perspectives. Our best hope is that current and
future teachers become critical consumers of state standards and district-sponsored materials and see themselves as ‘smugglers’ of good history back into the school day.”
It’s shameful but true that less than 20% of young learners are proficient in U.S. history. More disturbing is a report issued by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that shows nearly 75% of Americans cannot name the three branches of government.
“There is a general lack of knowledge about our history; perhaps, that is the reason why political dissention has become more violent in recent times,” says Danielson, a long-term colleague of former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. He also served as Chief of Staff for Education Secretary Rod Paige. “Dissention, in itself, is not a bad thing. Skeptics like George Washington, John Adams and the other Founding Fathers put our nation on the road to a unique style of governance—a federation of states with a Representative Democracy. And, it took nonconformists such as Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. to incorporate their visions of a better world to bring about much needed reforms to the American way—which actually—permanently influenced the world for the better. They were our revolutionary role models,” said Danielson.
Is the country losing faith in the values and ideals that made it great, because of its historical illiteracy?
“The late Dr. Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and history education advocate David Bruce Smith thought so. And, that is why the Grateful American Book Prize was established. It occurred to them that if kids were not learning history in the classroom, perhaps they could be enticed with stories of adventure, romance and ingenuity. The Prize is aimed at encouraging authors and their publishers to produce more historically accurate fiction and nonfiction for middle schoolers. Regaling our kids with exciting tales that capture their imaginations can hook them on history.”
As columnist Karol Markowicz put it an OpEd in the New York Post: “We talk often about how fractured our country has become. That our division increases while school kids are taught less and less about our shared history should come as no surprise.”
If that’s the case, says Danielson, we need to do whatever it takes to “re-capture” the kids. It would help, too, if parents petitioned the education authorities in their communities and states, requesting them to reinstate the importance of history in the classroom.
“How can we expect America’s younger generations to learn how to be responsible and productive citizens without informing them of the events and personalities that shaped the nation? How can they make knowledgeable, intelligent choices without knowing the critically important decisions of the past?” Danielson said.
Fact: for those newly arrived in the U.S. seeking to become citizens, a thorough knowledge of American history is a requisite. They need to know about the Constitution, the workings of our three branches of government and more. There are no less than 100 questions on the examination they must take in order to qualify for citizenship.
Says Danielson: “ask yourself, could my middle and high school students pass a citizenship test?”