…it looks like the schools have won and history has lost. A recent survey indicates that less than a quarter of American students are scoring at or above the “proficient” level in their knowledge of this subject. For twelfth graders, the number is only 12%.
More from Joanne Jacobs and her commenters. Few high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought the U.S. during the Korean war. Most fourth graders were unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure. Only a third of fourth graders were able to identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And only 2% of 12th graders can name the social problem — school segregation — that Brown vs. the Board of Education was supposed to correct, even after reading: “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” That number is two percent.
While these results are disturbing, they should not be surprising to anyone who has been keeping up. Evidence has been building for years that the American school system is generally doing a very poor job in the teaching of history. I’ve seen data from 2002 showing that 15% of high school students actually believed that the U.S. and Germany had been allies during World War II. And the failures of history teaching extend through college level. In 2008, historian David McCullough spoke to seminar of some twenty-five students at an Ivy League college, all seniors majoring in history, all honors students. “How many of you know who George Marshall was?” he asked. None did.
So why is this happening?
A big part of the problem is the temporal bigotry that seems to be inculcated in so many “educators.” This is the belief that people today are so much wiser and more knowledgeable than people of past eras that we couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from them. In a post several years ago, a blogger mentioned that he had encountered a teacher who said “Kids learn so much these days. Did you know that today a schoolchild learns more between the freshman and senior years of high school than our grandparents learned in their entire lives?” (“She said this as if she had read it in some authoritative source”)
It is easy to take this teacher’s assertion apart, as I did in this post, but her attitude seems to be a depressingly common one among those who teach for a living–and, I suspect, even more common among the ed-school denizens who are responsible for teaching the teachers.
It also seems to me likely that the blank-slate theory of human nature which is held by so many on the Left, consciously or implicitly, has something to do with this. If human beings were indeed infinitely malleable–if there were really no such thing as human nature–then people living 500 years ago, whose life experiences had been very different from our own, might not have so much to teach us.
The attempt to blame the poor history results on NCLB and the increased emphasis on reading/math seems to me to be pretty lame. The testing and the reading/math focus were not put in place at random; they were put in place because the schools were known to be doing a poor job in these areas and because everything else–including history–depends on some level of proficiency in one or both of these subject. It is certainly not impossible to teach reading and writing and arithmetic and history–most American schools once did exactly that, not perfectly by a long shot, but better than they are doing at present–but that was before the era of teachers’ unions, over-administration, and the dominance of theory and political indoctrination in the ed schools.