Failing at History

From the June 2002 Trumpet Print Edition

According to “The Nation’s Report Card,” America’s youth are illiterate in history.

The report, published by the U.S. Department of Education, shows that seven years after the U.S. began a push to see that more of its youth learned about their nation’s history (after terrible test scores on the subject in 1994), high school seniors’ knowledge of history hasn’t improved at all.

Last year, 29,000 students in grades 4, 8 and 12, from both public and private schools, took the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. The students’ scores in history were called “truly abysmal” by naep officials.

On the test, 57 percent of high school seniors could not perform at the basic level; 32 percent performed at the basic level; 11 percent reached the “proficient” level or performed grade-level work; 1 percent were advanced or superior. Education Secretary Roderick Paige defined basic as “the bottom of the achievement ladder” (USA Today, May 10).

History scores were lower than those of any other subject assessed by the exam, including math and reading.

The Macon Telegraph mused, “If the human story, as H.G. Wells wrote, is ‘a race between education and catastrophe,’ then catastrophe seems to be gaining on us fast’” (May 13).

What’s so awful about these scores?

Not only do they display ignorance about historical facts, but also a poor ability to thoughtfully digest knowledge and to understand the practical, real-life importance of history. “One can only feel alarm that they know so little about … history and express so little capacity to reflect on its meaning,” Diane Ravitch, a member of the test’s governing board, said (Washington Post, May 10).

So why is it so important to understand history?

The news we see every day from countries around the world is rooted in and fueled by the history of those regions. To understand the events that are happening in the world, you must have some knowledge of the background that led to them.

In addition, an understanding of history is vital to our future. “Our ability to defend—intelligently and thoughtfully—what we as a nation hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of what we hold dear,” Ravitch said. “That can only be achieved through learning the history we share, and clearly, far too many high school seniors have not learned even a modest part of it” (USA Today, op. cit.).

In the United States, the students who lack a basic knowledge of how the U.S. came to be the nation it is—with its justice system and the rights and freedoms protected by its Constitution—are the same ones who, in the future, will need to defend these rights and freedoms when they come under attack, as they did on September 11. Their ability to defend what their country stands for will be severely weakened without an understanding of how those rights came to be, and why they are important. As the Macon Telegraph asked, “[H]ow can they hold on to the freedoms they do not understand? … [A] generation ignorant of history not only lacks a past; it also lacks a future” (op. cit.).

In an even wider sense, we can look back on thousands of years of recorded human history—a running scenario of growth and decline, misery and suffering. If we do not begin to realize the immense value of this legacy, we will be doomed to repeat it.

Why does history repeat itself? Because to ignore human error of the past is to ignore the law of cause and effect. Of all subjects, history teaches the law of cause and effect! For every effect there is a cause, and when the causes are ignored—the effect is soon to come. It is a law.

That law is why every curriculum of study uses a form of history. Mathematicians, chemists, doctors, inventors keep records of past successes and failures. It is standard practice in every field of study. Why? Because if something fails today, it will fail tomorrow for the same reasons. It is a law that cannot be broken. A different result can only come by changing the formula.

By the same token, if we learn from the positive examples of the past, by emulating them we will achieve the same positive results.

Not Making the Grade

57% of high school seniors could not even perform at the basic level

32% performed at the basic level

11% reached the “proficient” level or performed grade-level work

1% were advanced or superior.

What They Don’t Know

• Of the eighth graders, just 39% knew that the biggest factor leading to the formation of the First Continental Congress was frustration with the British Parliament.

• Only 57% of fourth graders knew that one of the major causes of the great American Civil War was the division between the North and South over slav