What’s this? A conservative hero and a liberal icon are out stumping for the same issue? It’s true. Conservative-Republican-Reagan-cabinet member-and-author Bill Bennett, and liberal-Democrat-Al Gore-advisor-and-author Naomi Wolf are both worried that Americans are not learning their own history or civics. Though Ms. Wolf draws her customary wrong conclusions (it’s the evil Bush’s fault!), the two have good cause to worry. Just look at these headlines: “College Students Fail Civics Test;” “College Students Knowledge of American Presidents is Poor;” “College Seniors Lack Basic Knowledge in American History.” Not very good news, but what can account for the fact that young Americans don’t know America?
“Students learn almost nothing about civic matters while they are in college,” says Josiah Bunting, chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s National Civic Literacy Board. “Our students neither enter nor exit their universities with a level of civic literacy that even approaches a satisfactory level.”
How bad is this knowledge deficit? According to a report from News Blaze, “college seniors achieved less than 60 percent correct on a series of questions about U.S. presidents.” One survey found that professors believe 81 percent of college seniors are at a D or F grade level when it comes to American history. In addition, the survey found that many college seniors had a difficult time identifying words from the Gettysburg Address or identifying main concepts from the Constitution.
Historian David McCullough testified to Congress that American elementary and high school students test even weaker in U.S. history than in reading and math. Defenders point out that the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered by the U.S. Department of Education to fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, show scores in U.S. history improving. That is good news. But a closer look shows the highest percentages in the Basic level and the lowest percentages in Proficient and Advanced levels. For example, fourth grade scores show only 2 percent Advanced, 18 percent Proficient, 70 percent Basic, and 10 percent below Basic. Still, NAEP is quick to point out that the Basic level has increased from 64 to 70 percent since 1994. Good news, certainly, but the number of students below proficient — Basic and below Basic — is 80 percent. In eighth-grade the combination of Basic and below covers 82 percent of students, and in twelfth-grade that figure rises to 86 percent, with only 13 percent Proficient and 1 percent Advanced. Does this mean that American students learn less as they get older?
Says Bennett: “It is not our children’s fault. Our country’s adults are expected to instill a love of country in its children, but the greatness and purpose of that country are mocked by the chattering classes. Newspaper columns and television reports drip with a constant cynicism about America while doubts about her motives on the world stage are the coin of the realm. Too many commentators are too ready to believe the worst about our leaders and our country, and our children’s history books — and even some of the teachers — close off any remaining possibility of helping children learn about their country.”
Moreover, he blames “dull and tendentious textbooks used in American schools. College students do worst in American history because most of the books are very large and boring, or they’re so politically correct they’re off-putting.” Political correctness goes as far as describing the Pilgrims as “people who took long trips, saying nothing about their religious beliefs. They’ve killed the subject for the kids and that’s the worst sin of all…[America’s history] is the greatest political story ever told.”
It’s been said that if you want to destroy a country, destroy its memory. Are we destroying ours? Liberal feminist idol Naomi Wolf thinks so and warns in writing about being defenseless against fascists (that would be Bush and the Republicans, of course.) She offers no solution. Bennett and other educators worry as well, but have offered answers through curriculum design, through support of education reform, and through numerous books (including Mr. Bennett’s two new American history textbooks).
Let’s hope someone is listening to at least one of them.
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