Jackson Sun: Editorial: Hard to be good American without understanding our nation's history

Posted on June 16, 2011

Can you be a good citizen and a good American without knowing our nation's history? Former Tennessee governor and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has his doubts, and so do we.

A new report on the National Assessment of Education Progress released by the National Assessment Governing Board shows U.S. history to be students' worst subject. It is a disappointing, even alarming report.

The events of U.S. history define who we are as a nation. The roots of our democracy and the U.S. Constitution anchor our nation and what it stands for in the world. Knowledge of U.S. history helps us understand and appreciate our freedom and the great prices that have been paid to sustain it. Not knowing U.S. history is like not knowing who your parents are or where you came from.

The new report shows that more than half of 12th graders tested are performing below basic level in U.S. history. As an example, 88 percent of 12th graders don't understand the reasons the U.S. fought in World War I. Less than one quarter of students performed at the proficient level in U.S. history in 2010.

In every election cycle we lament the poor turnout of Americans to vote. In the recent Jackson election for mayor and City Council, only 7 percent of registered voters bothered to exercise this most basic right of democracy. Only about a quarter of people eligible to vote do so, in even the biggest elections.

Alexander has long been a proponent of the importance of studying U.S. history and civics in our public schools. In his press release about the new report, he said: "We need to return U.S. history to its rightful place in the classroom so that our children grow up learning what it means to be an American."

Americans are quick to rally around the nation's flag at the first sign of a national tragedy or a celebration such as Flag Day or the Fourth of July. But flying the American flag is different than understanding what it means to be an American based on the nation's history. Our nation's schools face many challenges. Perhaps some of those challenges would be eased if students understood how lucky they are to live in America. A few more lessons in U.S. history could help them understand that.