U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander told leaders of the Smithsonian Institution today, at a hearing of the Senate Rules Committee, that American students are woefully ignorant of their own national history.
“Despite the fact that 23 million people visited the Smithsonian last year, American high school seniors’ worst subject is still U.S. history,” Alexander said. “We have to turn this around and help our children – not to mention new Americans who have immigrated here – learn the story of our nation.”
Alexander suggested expanding programs at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum that host history teachers so “more teachers will have the knowledge and excitement to energize their students.”
He also proposed that the Smithsonian work with the National Park system, which is preparing to celebrate its centennial in 2016. President Bush has proposed a $300 million per year initiative (over the next ten years) to help in that celebration, Alexander noted, and “A number of historical sites – like Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, Tenn. – are national parks that might want to cooperate in helping teachers, students, and new Americans learn more about who we are and where our nation comes from.”
“In a visit to Nashville Monday, I learned that many students there are legal immigrants who want to learn American history so they can pass their citizenship test when they turn 18,” Alexander added. “That’s a group of young minds we should be reaching out to.”
Alexander first proposed “putting American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children grow up learning what it means to be an American” in his maiden speech to the Senate in March of 2003. He was the principal sponsor of the American History and Civics Act, which became law in December of 2004. It authorized the Department of Education to provide grants for the establishment of Presidential Academies for Teachers and Congressional Academies for Students of American history and civics. The first such academy was held by the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University last year, and brought teachers from all 50 states to Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and Washington.
Alexander has also sponsored, with Senator Ted Kennedy, the American History Achievement Act, which would create a 10-state pilot study to provide state-by-state comparisons of U.S. history and civics test data for 8th and 12th grades administered through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to assess and improve knowledge of American history and civics.
The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History is closed for renovation and will reopen summer ’08.
Alexander is a member of the Senate Rules Committee and a former U.S. Secretary of Education.