‘Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. I’ve just flunked history — again.’ Abraham Lincoln, who dat?

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

America’s fourth and eighth graders took home their test results… and delivered the unquestionable fact that the history of this great nation is the subject in which they are least proficient.

Just one finding epitomizes the whole: the overwhelming majority of these future citizens does not know who Abraham Lincoln is… and cannot name a single one of his accomplishments.

But this is not an article just about today’s students and their egregious limitations and unfathomed ignorance. It is a story about us, all of us…

parents grandparents neighbors community leaders and politicians generally.

What we have done collectively is to strip history of its profound significance… so that its position at the very bottom of school subjects can hardly be wondered at.

Here are the facts.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an arm of the federal Department of Education, released its 2010 “report card” on history June 14, 2011. This report is a stink bomb, a mine field of horror stories, conclusively demonstrating that how we teach history just isn’t working, for all the money we spend.

Item: Almost no high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought U.S. troops in the Korean War or when and why that war took place.

Item: Only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated “proficiency”.

Item: Fewer than one-third of eighth-graders was able to answer a “seemingly easy” question asking them to identify an important advantage that the American forces had over the British during the Revolutionary War.

The bad news, the horrifying news just keeps on coming.

Item: Just 2 percent of twelfth-graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, arguably one of the half dozen most important cases determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in the last 70 years.

Students were given an excerpt from the Court’s decision which included this passage:

“We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. Students were then asked — but were overwhelmingly unable to answer — what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct. The irony, of course, is that a large number of these students owe their very places in the schools they attend to this nation-changing ruling.

About the tests.

The test were given in the spring of 2010 to a representative sample of 7,000 fourth- graders, 11,800 eighth-graders and 12,400 12th-graders nationwide. History is one of eight subjects — along with math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics — covered by the assessment which is also called the Nation’s Report Card.

The program defines three achievement levels for each test: “basic” denotes partial mastery of a subject; “proficient” represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and “advanced” means superior performance.

The students did best in economics: 42 percent of high school seniors were deemed “proficient” in the 2006 economics test, a larger proportion than in any other single subject over the past decade. But let’s not kid ourselves before we uncork the champagne; in their very best subject, 58 percent rated below proficient. Sadly, this is the best, the very best these future citizens of the Republic can deliver. Pathetic.

Grab the good news where we can find it.

The nation’s educational experts point out, rightly, that all the news isn’t bad… there are some bright spots, though only a few. Fourth- and eighth-graders know more history than in years past. Proficiency rose among fourth-graders to 20 percent from 18 percent in 2006 and held steady at 17 percent among eighth-graders. No doubt true… but set against the immensity of their ignorance of history by high school seniors, we have absolutely nothing to cheer about. The minimal “goods” are as nothing against the fact that high schools seniors, many of whom are eligible to vote, are just plain incompetent. Such are the “white hope” of the democracy….

Racial differences, some progress here.

Educational experts, taking the good news wherever they can find it, point to improvements by different racial groups:

On average, white eighth-grade students scored 274 on the latest test, 21 points higher than Hispanic students and 23 points above black students. In 2006, white students outperformed Hispanic students by 23 points and black students by 29 points. From such shards we must take what comfort we can.

Clio laments and muses at such terrible results.

The ancient Greeks, smarter than we are, assigned a daughter of Zeus himself to guard the craft of history. Her name was Clio, and such was her importance that all her amours were kings. In short, she was a person of consequence, honored. She is depicted as holding a parchment role or set of tablets, from which she made her important declarations; so came to be known as the Proclaimer, a determined woman who could confer the gift of undying fame, something ardently desired by every true Greek with any claim to the regard of posterity. Such fame is the gift of history… and is the essence of what history is all about; the story of our species and the significant goods and evils we have committed and which we expect our progeny to acknowledge, know and to either laud and extol or condemn and denounce…. but always to mine for its manifold messages and significance.

History demoted.

History-education advocates contend that these poor showings in the tests underline neglect shown the subject by policy makers ,especially after the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act began requiring schools to raise scores in math and reading but in no other subject. This was like the federal government handing local school districts a mallet with which to demolish Clio and all her works. Scores slumped as a result.

But there is more here than just bureaucrats robbing Peter to advance Paul. We have an educational system that too often disdains history as insignificant, even irrelevant. History instruction is denigrated as nothing more than memorizing dates. But this reduces the riveting tale of our species on this planet to an absurdity.

History is a compendium of our stories, great and small. First, what have we done; not just when did we do it.

Teachers cannot teach history properly because their history studies dealt too often with the most insignificant aspects of Clio’s curriculum. They cannot teach history… because they never learned and never understood history. And so one generation bequeaths to the next generation its boredom and disdain for the most important subject of all: the story of mankind here on this third rock from the sun. Our students fail accordingly and we arrive at a place where even the titans of our race, like Abraham Lincoln, are unknown… with all that that means to our collective future.

Until we have root and branch reform about what we want our historical record to keep as significant… and how we want our teachers to know and our beleaguered students to master ,there will be no progress, only trivial advances amidst a backdrop of gloom. And this we will reckon is the best we can do…. which is the most alarming deduction of all and the most pernicious.

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About The Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is , where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at http://homeprofitcoach.com/listbuilding

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