Manchester (NH) Union-Leader
No recent indicator of Americans’ ignorance of their nation’s history has been more distressing than the high percentage of adults and schoolchildren who can’t even pass the simple test required of immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship.
While recent passing rates for would-be new Americans have exceeded 90 percent, Newsweek reported in its March 28/April 4 edition that only 62 percent of randomly selected adult citizens passed the test when given by its pollster. Among the most appalling findings: Only 30 percent knew that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land; 43 percent did not know that the first 10 amendments constitute the Bill of Rights; and two-thirds could not identify America’s economic system as capitalistic or market-based.
The consequences of such widespread ignorance would be chilling to contemplate even in less eventful times. But in the current era marked by the threat of terrorism, broad public policy debates raising vital questions about the role of government in the daily lives of Americans, and immigration patterns that are signaling some fundamental shifts in America’s population and cultural heritage, the urgency of these findings could hardly be greater.
As historians Sheldon M. Stern and Jeremy A. Stern wrote in a recent Fordham Institute evaluation of state history standards, only history can teach students certain verities, such as “how hard our predecessors fought for advances such as free speech, religious tolerance, the right to vote, minorities’ and women’s rights, and constitutional restraints on government power – advances that were daring and radical in their time, even if we now take them for granted.”
As an initial foray in a war against ignorance, why not administer the immigrants’ Citizenship Test to all high school students in, say, the sophomore year? Those who do not have a clue about why we celebrate the Fourth of July or who authored the Declaration of Independence could be assigned a savvy teacher, or even a counselor, for extra instruction on civic essentials.
Of course, the long-term solution would come from U.S. history once again being taught sequentially throughout K-12 by knowledgeable teachers. Unfortunately, states typically do not require high-school history teachers to have majored in history or even to have taken a few survey courses. In many cases the subject is buried in a hodgepodge called social studies that typically is more about global and environmental “critical thinking” than acquisition of fundamental knowledge.
State legislatures and boards of education could lead by adopting rigorous history standards and emphasizing content mastery in the certification of history teachers. Unfortunately, Stern’s tough-minded evaluation showed that many states have academic standards that “offer teachers and students little more than isolated fragments of decontextualized history.” The worst of the bunch fail to mention any significant individuals from the American past.
There were some bright spots. For the innovative use of “support documents” plus its rigorous and comprehensive approach rich in historical narrative, South Carolina earned an A. Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia received marks of A-minus.
On the other hand, state history standards ranking at the bottom include Wisconsin’s, (“contain no history whatsoever apart from brief lists of eras”); Oregon’s, (“focuses heavily on the mistreatment of minorities, all but ignoring other aspects of the nation’s past”), and Illinois’, (“exceptionally vague”).
States that have improved their standards have combined material and details from exemplary models, like California’s and Massachusetts’, creating standards rich in specifics and rigor. But none of this happens overnight. Something that could be done more quickly to kick-start the process would be to require high school students to take that Citizenship Test.
This would not be an onerous new testing requirement. Test-takers must answer just 10 questions selected from a 100-item bank of questions maintained by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. A passing mark is six correct answers.
After all, shouldn’t students who have passed social studies or history courses throughout elementary and high school be at least as knowledgeable as persons who have come to America from other lands and begun learning about the heritage of their new homeland from scratch?
If scores were released by schools and districts, the data might focus public attention on how shockingly little students are being taught about the roots of self-government, and thereby might spur demands for history to be restored to its rightful place in the curriculum.
The truth about our common ignorance might hurt — but it also might help in keeping us a free people.
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