San Diego Union-Tribune
As we gather with families, friends and neighbors this Fourth of July, the rapid decline of Americans’ knowledge of their own history gives us reason to be concerned that the purpose of our star-spangled holiday will be lost on a growing number of us.
Refusing to accept viral ignorance as inevitable, the Citizenship First project at Harlem-based Democracy Prep, a high-performing urban charter school that specializes in preparing students for active citizenship, has a plan to avoid it.
Citizenship First has issued a Challenge 2026 — namely, that by the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s founding, every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. That is the same test of the basics of Americanism that 97 percent of naturalized citizens currently take and pass, but which most U.S. high school students have flunked in research samplings.
Most test items are not especially challenging — i.e., naming one right or freedom from the First Amendment, or correctly identifying the first 10 amendments to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights.
One item asking why the colonists fought the British does require test-takers to understand that our Revolutionary forebears had multiple motivations, as Thomas Jefferson laid out so brilliantly in the Declaration of Independence.
This Independence Day, why not see how many in your household could pass the U.S. Citizenship Exam? A 20-question version is available at citizenshipfirst.us/exam.
You may decide it is time to let your local school board know you’d like to see history restored in the core curriculum. After all, preparing the young for self-government is a founding mission of American public education.
Late-night comedian Jay Leno has used his “Jaywalking” adventures to allow folks to chuckle occasionally at citizens’ lack of knowledge about their own country.
Unfortunately, comic relief cannot suffice at morning’s light, given the stark reality that barely one in 10 American high school students scored proficient in their grasp of U.S. history on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), published in 2011.
Nor is it funny that more than one-third of high school seniors (including 62 percent of black and 50 percent of Hispanic students) scored “below basic” on the NAEP civics test, with basic being the most bare-bones level of competence.
There are many reasons Americans don’t know much about history — or civics. A short explanation is that the education establishment no longer values history as a serious discipline.
A recent 50-state Lexington Institute study found that few states still even give lip service to the idea that a university major in history ought to be a requirement for teaching high school history.
For instance, California’s teacher-licensing system specifies no coursework requirements to establish that a would-be high school history teacher majored, minored, or even just dabbled in history.
While other subjects, such as geosciences and biological sciences, rate single-subject credentials with tests to ensure teachers have mastered essential content, history does not. Instead, both U.S. and world history are covered under the broad umbrella of “social sciences,” and tested along with such diverse content as economics, geography, and California history.
California does distinguish itself from most other states in requiring all teachers to demonstrate a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution as part of their certification.
Maybe a kick start for a revival of history as an academic discipline could come from outside the realm of state certification. Requiring all candidates for a high school diploma to pass the U.S. Citizenship Exam might be one way to raise public awareness and begin to exert pressure to restore essential knowledge to the K-12 curriculum.
Surely after 13 years of formal schooling, an American teen should know at least as much about this nation’s founding principles as an adult immigrant who came here as a blank slate but studied hard to pass the exam.
Take a break from your Fourth of July picnic, take a peek at the exam, and see if you agree.
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