The History Gap Hurts Our Kids

By Gabe Pressman
|  Tuesday, Mar 22, 2011  |  Updated 5:45 PM EDT
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The History Gap Hurts Our Kids

Getty Images / Joe Corrigan/Stringer

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It’s an appalling revelation. But a recent poll shows that many Americans are ignorant about the fundamentals of our history -- and government.

  It was the philosopher Santayana who said: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
 
Well, it is difficult to learn from history if you don’t even know how what that history is. And the sad thing is our education officials put such a low priority on the teaching and learning of history and government.
 
Our children live in a world of test scores -- for math and English -- and no emphasis on other subjects like history, science, music. Teachers in New York, we have learned, often teach to the test -- motivated by a desire to impress their supervisors, retain their jobs or even get promoted. And principals have the same ambitions.
 
The shocking results of a Newsweek survey showing that, of 1000 people polled, 38% failed the citizenship test. More specifically:
 

  • 73 percent didn’t know why we fought the cold war.
  • 70 % didn’t know that the Constitution was the supreme law of the land.
  • 63% got the number of Supreme Court justices wrong [there are nine].
  • 23% didn’t know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights.
  • 59% didn’t know that Susan B. Anthony fought for women’s rights.
  • 29% couldn’t name our Vice President, Joe Biden.

 
I reached Kenneth Jackson, the eminent American historian. He said, "It’s difficult to be part of any intelligent discussion on national issues if you don’t have a knowledge of history. Could you discuss March Madness if you didn’t know that a long field goal was worth three points?"
 
He agreed that it was sad that we don’t test history. "We have to hope that the level of ignorance about history will end some day. Every school in America should be emphasizing history as a subject necessary for all students."
 
The No Child Left Behind Act laid out standards, I fear, that ignored the reality of what is needed in a child’s education. In their zeal to analyze educational achievements as though they were keeping score at a track meet, educators became blind to the aspects of education that went beyond reading and math.
 
The results of this survey show that educators and would be educators have a lot to learn about what child and adult students need. We have to stop looking for shortcuts and challenge our kids to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and the satisfaction that knowledge brings.

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