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The Conservative Curmudgeon
April 2, 2008

The Failure to Teach U.S. History — A Threat to the Future of Our Free Society
by Allan C. Brownfeld

American society is undergoing dramatic change. The United States now has more than 34 million foreign-born residents — approximately 10 percent of the population. This figure is double the level of 1970 (4.7 percent) and the highest since 1930 (11.6 percent).

Yet at the very moment when our population is rapidly changing, and we depend upon our public schools to transmit our history and the values of a free and democratic society to a population largely unfamiliar with such concepts, the failure of the public schools to fulfill this mission is becoming abundantly clear.

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a recent survey conducted by Common Core knew when the Civil War was fought. One in four teenagers said Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

Another study, conducted by the Lehrman American Studies Center at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Delaware, found that college freshmen earned an average grade of F, or just 53.7 per cent, when asked a series of questions about U.S. presidents and key historical events from their times in office. After four years in college, their knowledge did not improve substantially.

A survey of students at the nation's top 55 colleges and universities indicates a similar lack of historical knowledge. While nearly 100 percent of the soon-to-graduate students could identify cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead and the rapper Snoop Dogg, only 34 percent knew that George Washington was the American general at the Battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution. A majority of college seniors who were asked questions from a high-school achievement test also could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.

It was found that students at 100 percent of these elite institutions of higher learning can go through four years of classes and graduate without taking a single American history course. "History is a discipline in decline," said Oscar Handlin, professor emeritus at Harvard University. "There is a profound ignorance not only among students but among their teachers as well."

Historian David McCullough expressed concern over the study, which discovered that students at 78 percent of the schools were not required to take any history courses. "The place given to history in our schools is a disgrace, and the dreadful truth is very few of those responsible for curriculum seem to care, even at the highest levels of education."

When 111 ninth-graders in a Honolulu school were asked to write the Pledge of Allegiance, none could do it correctly. One response described the United States as a nation "under guard" and dedicated "for richest stand." A teacher called the results "frightening," and said 12 students had trouble spelling the word "America."

As far back as 1975, a report by the Organization of American Historians showed the primary trend to be the replacement of history in the high-school curriculum with multicultural and ethnic studies, current events, consumer affairs, ecology, sociology, and psychology. The report also found a sharp decline in the study of civics and government. These trends have accelerated in the intervening years.

Today, nearly half of our nation's children under age five belong to a racial or ethnic minority. Writing in the SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE, Joel Garreau notes, "Our kindergartens now prefigure the country as a whole, circa 2050 -- a place where non-Hispanic whites are a slight majority."

In his book, THE NEW AMERICANS, Michael Barone, a senior writer at U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT, reminds us that the United States has never been a homogeneous, monoethnic nation. He shows how the new Americans of today can be interwoven into the fabric of American life just as immigrants have been throughout our history. He believes, however, that it is essential to heed the lessons of America's past and avoid misguided policies and programs — such as bilingual education — that hinder rather than help assimilation. Barone is particularly critical of American elites who no longer promote the teaching of our history, culture, and values in our schools.

He writes, "Elite Americans ... have tended to regard 'Americanization' as an uncouth expression of nationalistic pride or a form of bigotry.... Elites came to see Americanization as the unfair subjection of members of other races and cultures. They came to
celebrate ... an America that would be made up of separate and disparate 'multicultural' groups, fenced off in their own communities, entitled to make demands on the larger society, but without any responsibility to assimilate to American mores."

In the 2008 presidential election, there is a great deal of focus on the youth vote, and young people appear to be more energized to participate than they have in the past. On one level, of course, this is a good thing. There is concern, however, that with little knowledge of American history and what has happened in the past, these young voters may not have a proper basis upon which to judge the present. "We are sorry," said Richard Berke of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, "that it has become a kind of cult of personality. If these kids don't know what has happened in the past, then we fear they are going to be fodder for sweeping rhetoric."

Thomas Jefferson observed that a nation that hopes to be free and ignorant hopes for what never was and never will be. James Madison declared, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."

Today's American schools no longer have the transmission of our history, culture, and values to the next generation as an important goal. The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program has had an effect of impoverishing public school curricula by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and mathematics -- but on no other
subjects. In February, the Center on Education Policy estimated, on the basis of its own survey, that 62 percent of school systems had added an average of three hours of math or reading instruction a week at the expense of time for history, art, and other subjects.

To preserve a free society at a time of dramatic changes in our country, there must be a commitment to transmit our history and values. This commitment, sadly, is nowhere to be seen.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to forward this column if credit is given to the author and the Foundation.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW and a contributing editor to such publications as HUMAN EVENTS, THE ST. CROIX REVIEW, and THE WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS.

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