Monday, December 7, 2009

The United States of Amnesia: America's Historical Ignorance, Part II

In yesterday's post I pointed to a number of studies that reveal both a general and profound national illiteracy on the subject of American history. Today I wanted to bring up one more study (which focuses specifically on the history of the American Revolution) and why it is so dangerous for a society to forget its heritage.

As my co-blogger Tom Van Dyke has already cited on this blog, a recent survey/study conducted by the American Revolution Center sought out to determine just how much the average American really knows about the founding of this nation. As part of their survey they asked several random American citizens if maintaining a working knowledge of the American Revolution was important or not. 90% of Americans responded by stating that it was "extremely important" for citizens today to understand the history of the Revolution if they hoped to be able to participate effectively in the democratic process. In addition, these same subjects volunteered to take a "general test" on the American Revolution. 89% stated that they were "extremely confident" they would be able to pass with a B or better.

So just how many people passed the test you ask? Only 17%!!!

That's right, roughly 83% of American citizens failed this test on the BASIC history of the American Revolution. In fact, the average score was a dismal 44% (click here to see the actual results and summary of this survey/test, and click here to see the actual test questions and take it for yourself).

When hearing of these atrocious scores Josiah Bunting, chairman of the National Civic Literacy Board, aptly stated the following:
The survey provides stark evidence that Americans of the 21st century are increasingly -- sadly, deplorably -- ignorant of their legacy, their history and their political and constitutional birthright of the 18th century.
Susan Jacoby, author of the book, The Age of American Unreason echoes Mr. Buntings words when she writes:
During the past four decades, America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation's heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.
With such deplorable scores one can only wonder why more emphasis is NOT placed on educating Americans about their noble past. After all, European nations have, in the past two decades, increased the emphasis their schools place on history at almost all levels and the results have been extremely positive. Overall, European nations, when compared with their American counterparts, have triple the historical literacy -- and their history is a helluva lot older than ours so there's more to learn!

As I stated in my earlier post on this topic, I find is strange and even downright hypocritical for Americans to espouse such passionate political beliefs and allegiances while being so willfully ignorant of their past. Of course I am not suggesting that all Americans are to become professional historians, but is it too much to ask that they be capable of passing a test on the BASIC history of this nation? Doesn't it seem to make sense that before one takes up a political cause based on constitutional principles that he/she first possess an understanding of the Constitution itself? I guess it's sort of like the professing Christian who, despite any knowledge of the actual doctrine of his/her creed, expresses an everlasting allegiance to a faith that he/she knows nothing about.

Now, perhaps you think that I am just a biased blogger. After all, I did major in history. Would not a biology major or a math major express these same sentiments with regards to their field of study? Perhaps. But remember this: it is impossible for anyone to truly understand the political nature, governmental construct, and the rich heritage of this nation without first having a general grasp of its history.

But don't believe me. Instead give ear to the author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd president of this fine republic (assuming you even know who that is):
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
~Thomas Jefferson

31 comments:

Pinky said...

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I watched both videos and more related to them at the You-Tube site. And, I agree with your hypothesis here, Brad.
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But, the question is raised about where the blame should be put for the ignorance.
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David McCullough seems to lay it at the feet of the educators and not on the students.
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We all know that there is a sort of Magesterium in academic circles--scholars in pursuit of the same thesis year after year after year with a focus on dates and details and short on dialogue outside the box.
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I particularly liked McCullough's comments regarding history being something that is played out in the present moment. He had fun with Franklin and Jefferson (I think) talking about how great it was to "be living in the past wearing these ridiculous outfits" and it brought a big laugh from his audience.
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A relative sells books to schools and libraries in Florida. That California is limiting the study of American history seems suspicious to me. Who the heck is in charge of making such decisions?
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Maybe Lynne Cheney has some answers?
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J. L. Bell said...

What does “passing” mean on this test? Apparently it means “a B or above,” which in turn means answering 80% of the questions correctly?

But what if we define passing as 60% or above (i.e., the traditional cut-off point for a D)?

And how has the test been normed? Who has determined that this collection of facts constitutes appropriate knowledge of the American Revolution available to citizens today?

I ask this not to cast doubt on the overall thesis that Americans don’t know a lot of detail about American history, but to figure out what distinguishes a serious test from a public-relations exercise.

David Kalivas said...

The word "educators" means everything and nothing when it comes to decisions about what is or what is not taught. Regarding K-12, curriculum decisions are made by local school systems within general frameworks established by each of the states, which means state governments and their boards of education. By the time curriculum policy is established, the "educators," in this case, the teachers, and their local administrators have the task of figuring out how to teach whatever the requirements happen to be. Of course, how they figure it out at the local level raises a host of questions and challenges.

Then of course we have "educators" as higher education faculty, which is filled with lots of layers and meanings, but relatively meaningless when educators is used as a single word. Just look at the diversity of public and private colleges or universities in the United States and the word "educator" has different meanings and roles, not to mention differing requirements, if any, of either US, Western Civilization, or World History courses. Usually, history requirements are few or part of a general pool of courses. Many colleges/universities don't require any history, which really misses the mark of making sure our citizens have rear-view windows as they drive forward in life.

Of course, should students be required to have history then begs the question of what kind of history? Also, begs the question of how will history be taught? Will instruction focus on a litany of dates, names, places, and events or perhaps a more meaningful approach to understanding the context for those names, dates, etc, would be better for our students and society, too. However, lots depends on the local/state regulations and the culture of the specific college or university and not solely upon the educator.

Before we even get to the type of history, there's the entire bureaucratic process that largely frames the substance and process of what is required or not required -- usually educators don't have the lion's share of influence in setting curriculum policy.

Nonetheless, assuming we could get the K-12 and Higher Ed sectors to agree they should require history, the question then becomes what type of history? Sure, residents need to learn the history of the US and would benefit from understanding the context for our political and governmental system. However, the US is a country of immigrants and is currently the leading world power, so wouldn't it behoove us to require students to have a world history course that incorporates the US into the rest of history? Can we teach about the history of constitutional and republican government that gives students an understanding of what happened in the United States while also informing them of its historical relationship to the world beyond our borders that by and large shaped those borders?

It might mean a two or three semester requirement for higher ed and perhaps more for secondary education. However, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." ~Thomas Jefferson. I agree with Jefferson, especially as his education was broad and well beyond the parochial boundaries of one nation-state.

Just my small contribution to this conversation.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for the comments, and I hear what you are getting at, David and Mr. Bell. I agree that this little test is hardly a comprehensive overview of all things related to the history of the American Revolution -- nor was it my intent to portray it as such. Rather, I think this is just another -- of the many -- textbook examples of how Americans today are woefully ignorant of their history. Of course we could discuss the everlasting list of surveys, tests, etc. that have tried to prove this one fact, but I think we all are in agreement that history is appreciated in America about as much as a Paris Hilton's breakout album.

Sure, we can debate how to teach history, what books to use, etc. but does anyone doubt that Americans could benefit from putting it at least above their belly lint on their list of priorities?

King of Ireland said...

Cannot blame the educators. Who would want to teach today when a mouthy brat 16 year old can go and "tell" the principle you hurt their feelings by telling they cannot socialize in class and you are repeatedly called in to explain why you are "mean"?

Excuse my language but fuck that! Blame the parents that send their kids to school and let them be assholes. By the way some of the worst are "Christian" kids.

Pinky said...

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Educators use those textbooks that are available to them. Someone makes decisions about what gets included in those books and what gets left out.
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We read books.
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Ultimately, the student is dependent on the educator. And, book publishers have to be included as educators.
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Isn't that why some books are burned?
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Didn't Lynne Cheney have something to do with text books?
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Blaming the kid doesn't make a lot of sense to me; but, it might to some?
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King of Ireland said...

Pinky,

They get a free education that most in the world would kill for and sit and socialize through class. I do not feel sorry for any of them.

Brad Hart said...

I feel sorry for plenty of students because I get to see many of their lives OUTSIDE of the classroom...and it sucks. So I guess I understand why some of them are problems in the classroom.

As for who is to blame, why in the hell are we trying to blame one person/group of people here? Sure, students are to blame but so are parents, administrators, book editors and yes, even teachers. It's a perfect storm of stupidity. Sure there are some students who will never EVER listen to a teacher, but there are also teachers who won't, for the life of them, teach anything of substance in the classroom.

But alas, this is a totally different discussion than what was intended here. The question of how to address these problems is for another time and another blog. I don't have the answers, but believe me, I wish somebody did. I'm tired of dealing with juvenile offenders.

Pinky said...

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I don't get it, King.
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What do you mean, you don't feel sorry for any of them?
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It's our society that is at risk.
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Pinky said...

Brad, am I missing something here?
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Is there not some disdain for those who haven't quite arrived at the upper levels of educated sophistry as yet.
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Is there some sort of a magisterium that dictates the proper approach to the study of history.
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Brad Hart said...

Huh?

Pinky said...

Huh?
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I mean the attitude that students are getting a free ride and that it's their responsibility to know what's'best for them.
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Did I completely not get McCullough's talk?
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Brad Hart said...

I never said anything along those lines...all I was getting at is that there's plenty of blame to go around...and yes, some students should be a part of that blame.

That's all I was saying.

King of Ireland said...

Pinky,

I have taught poor children most of my adult life and the sad truth is that many do not want to be educated because they have built excuses not too. But I repeat in this country even the worst class or teacher with the worst climate is much better than most of the world. They have no excuse and I feel sorry for none of them.

I am not better, i did not take advantage of it either when I was young. No one should feel sorry for me either because I feel stuck teaching because I do not have the education yet to do what I want to do. We are a society of victims and it is not helping anyone to keep blaming teachers for all the ills of society.

Pinky said...

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Teachers--McCullough makes the point--are the most wonderful people in the world.
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No one is knocking teachers here that I have noticed.
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Having taught for most of your adult life, I am sure you have some great stories to tell about some of your successes.
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I hear they kicked Albert Einstein out of school for being one of those losers.
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Pinky said...

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Maybe there's something wrong with the educational system?
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King of Ireland said...

Pinky stated:

"Maybe there's something wrong with the educational system?'

It is called No Child Left Behind. It is communism. We are so afraid to hurt their feelings we leave ignorant. I mean even the best of schools. Private school is the way to go.

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Pinky said...

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Kentcabe writes, ut聊天室,情色視訊
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I don't think I can go along with that.

Brad Hart said...

KOI:

Sure, poor kids are slackers too but I think you might be missing the point. Lazy kids have always existed in our school system. Maybe there are more now than before, but again this misses the point.

We can't just blame the kids or No Child Left Behind for all our problems. The system was going bad long before NCLB. It's that "perfect storm" where everyone needs to take responsibility in order to fix it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hehe, Pinky.

I have a dark view of the American educational system. I think it exists not for the kids, for the teachers' gratification, both financial [unions---it's almost impossible to fire a bad teacher] and their political agenda [making Democratic voters, like force-feeding Al Gore's movie].

That said, my favorite teacher in college, and the most popular with everybody, was a calculus teacher [nobody cared about calculus] whose English was so accented it was hard to understand him.

But he loved calculus, and wanted every student to get it. It was his enthusiasm and love for his subject that was irresistible.

I believe anyone who wants to teach can teach---mebbe not all of 'em, but enough to make it worthwhile. First thing is you have to have something you really want to teach them. "Education" as a general and vague goal ain't gonna get it one.

David Kalivas said...
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David Kalivas said...
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David Kalivas said...

Interesting discussion with many issues. First, the use of history textbooks without additional readings is increasingly a problem both from the standpoint of presenting digested material as well as the reliance on publishers and editors who decide what to include or omit from their texts based on regional market analysis and not necessarily what should be presented. History texts are encyclopedic, some are written well, but most are not and while useful for background information they should not be the sole source. The use of primary source analysis should be a priority, but so should reading solid secondary sources that bring life and energy to the study of the past and offer students stories, analysis, and interpretations. Enlivening the study of the past and offering students an enthusiastic window on yesteryear so they can better see their present and future is more important than making sure they know a litany of facts. However, with standardized testing becoming the name of the game, history education (K-12)is becoming less a window of views and more an assembly line of crammed facts without any time for wonder, curiosity, and the joy of learning. Whether secondary or higher education, history should be ranked with the basic building blocks of reading, writing, math, and science. Once we can agree on the value of history then the question of what and how it is taught comes to the fore in addition to the environment of individual classrooms, schools, and their socio-economic context.

The reason good private schools are such an appealing option is their classrooms are smaller and their students tend to be more focused due to parental support (and more often than not we're talking about two parents) and resources that are available to teachers and students alike. A key ingredient for good private schools is smaller class sizes -- this is something that does not exist in most public schools because the funds are not available to have enough teachers to make classroom sizes smaller. And then there would not be enough classrooms if there were more teachers. On top of this are a myriad of problems that public schools deal with, but from the tenor of some posts in this discussion we should blame the unions who focus on "teacher gratification" and prevent firing the bad apples. There are certainly plenty of bad teachers, bad administrators, bad parents, and troubled students. And it may be difficult to fire teachers, and it should not be something easily done, but there nonetheless needs to be a review process that leads to dismissal. However, that really isn't the major problem, there are plenty of good teachers out there. In fact, I often wonder what would happen if our public schools had the same resources and classroom sizes as the best private schools with a contract in force that if students act up continuously they forfeit the privilege of being in school and are instead sent to schools for troubled kids where they are put on probation. (which is another boondoggle)

It's a complicated problem for sure, but in terms of history education, it should be required as a basic building block and it should be exciting and should not be tied to textbooks and taking standardized exams to see how many facts can be crammed into young minds that are only dulled by the process.

Pinky said...

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What's going on right here at this site is an expression of the problem our schools have in teaching history.
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How does an entire educational system, put together for the overall public good, organize itself to teach students on a graduated basis how things really developed when the jostling of various forces continues to upset the applecart?
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Maybe questions get settle by teaching dry and boring details and dates rather than the underlying currents of reality. Youngsters need inspiration!
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I imagine most religious schools have litle trouble teaching American history.
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Pinky said...

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David Kalivas highlights the private and the public in his most recent post.
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It's a complicated problem for sure...
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Exactly. And, that was an important issue the Founding era generation struggled with as they transitioned from the English monarchy the the American republic. I'm beginning to think that experience had as much to do with how our society evolved as most influences. Maybe more?
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King of Ireland said...

Tom

They can get you now. In fact, the truth is that the beat ones get let go because they will not follow a cookie cutter approach.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dunno. I hated school. What I write here is the result of self-study begun mebbe 5 years ago. Which is why I have problems swallowing the prevailing historical narrative---reading the Founding documents for myself, and man's history and philosophy leading up to it [not just that of the previous few decades], the modern secular narrative just doesn't ring true.

King of Ireland said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
King of Ireland said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
King of Ireland said...

Sorry for my outburst I am glad someone took it off.

Lesson:

Do not write about education the day you get fired from a teaching job. I am actually better off and excited to move on to something else I believe in.