Don't Know Much About History?

Posted on July 28, 2005

In honor of a certain upcoming holiday, here's a quick history quiz: Which famous document proclaims, ''all men are created equal?'' And where was that document adopted? When? If you're not sure, you're not alone. And that's got Sen. Lamar Alexander worried. Facing reams of national tests that show majorities of American schoolchildren of all ages struggle with questions like those, Alexander is leading a bipartisan effort to push U.S. history closer to the forefront of elementary and secondary education. ''Monday is July the Fourth, Independence Day for the United States of America,'' the Tennessee Republican said Thursday at a hearing to examine how history became what he called ''our worst subject.'' ''The sad fact is, for millions of young Americans, they don't know much about why we celebrate.'' History tests taken as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress - known as the ''Nation's Report Card'' - show students barely grasp fundamental pieces of America's past. In 2001, 33 percent of fourth-graders, 36 percent of eighth-graders and 57 percent of 12th-graders scored ''below basic'' for history, worse than in math, science or reading. Schools aren't required to participate in the test for history, so the real picture might be bleaker. That alarms lawmakers, historians and educators, who fear students will lose touch with the ideals and principles behind the nation's founding. ''If we raise generation after generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate, we run a great risk,'' said David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of popular histories and biographies including ''1776,'' ''Truman'' and ''John Adams.'' ''You can have amnesia as a society, which is just as dangerous as amnesia for an individual.'' So Alexander - a former secretary of education - and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy have introduced legislation that would give the NAEP more power to test students on history, in the hopes of tracking progress better. A pilot program would begin next year, with tests in 10 states to be determined. It also would encourage states to write sharper history curriculum standards. ''We can't insist that every child is going to develop a love of history or an understanding, but we can do all we can to give every child an opportunity,'' Kennedy said. Teachers told lawmakers the legislation could be a good start. Other steps might include increasing funds for state education departments to write history standards and training history teachers better, so they understand the subjects they're trying to explain to students. ''Imagine a teacher from San Francisco working side-by-side with a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist to gather clues about life in colonial Jamestown from newly unearthed skeletons,'' said Stephanie Norby, the director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. And McCullough, whose own books have sold well and won praise for both their scholarship and their readability, suggested America's schools need better reading materials. He suggested assigning students to read classic documents from American history, such as President Grant's memoirs, the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin or Frederick Douglass, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s ''Letter from a Birmingham Jail.'' ''Textbooks for the most part are very dreary,'' he said. ''Others are dismal almost beyond describing. It's as if they are being written to kill any interest a student might have.'' The answers, by the way, are: the Declaration of Independence; passed by the Continental Congress; Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.