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HNN Poll : The Consequences of Indifference to History

HNN Poll

Last week the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation released yet another report indicating that the states are neglecting the study of history and that students find history dull. Chester Finn, Jr., one of the authors of the report, identified one of the problems as the absence of rigorous state standards:

In an era of "standards-based" reform, we now understand that the subjects most apt to be taken seriously and taught well in our schools are those for which the state sets high-quality standards that make clear what teachers are expected to teach and children to learn; where the statewide assessment system regularly appraises how well those things are in fact being learned; and where the "accountability" system confers rewards and sanctions—on students, educators, and schools alike—according to how well they have succeeded in this teaching and learning.

In that context, however, U.S. history has not fared well. While almost every state requires students to sit through at least one course in this subject (typically in eleventh grade), history seldom even appears in statewide testing and accountability systems. Of the 24 states that have or intend to have high school exit exams by 2008, only nine include social studies among the subjects tested and, of the nine, just two (Mississippi and New York) test specifically in U.S. history.

The consequences of indifference to history? Brendan Miniter argues in the Wall Street Journal this week that students who are ignorant of history make bad citizens. They don't vote and don't appreciate American triumphs.

Our HNN poll this week: Is our democracy in trouble because students aren't taught enough history?

From Brendan Miniter, "Why Doesn't Johnny Vote? Blame It on Social Studies," Wall Street Journal (Sept. 29, 2003)

Social studies, depressingly, is the course American students do not want to take. Beginning in the 1970s--and in an apparently irreversible trend--the education establishment downsized history and the like into dull-witted subjects, gutted of all passion and focused on seemingly value-free events. Heroes? Pooh! Nationalism? Bah! Western civilization? You've gotta be kidding!

Yet the Sept. 11 attacks may have changed all that. A nation at war--one compelled to ask existential questions of itself and of others--has begun to rediscover the courage, the conviction and the energy long said to be dead in America....

It's about time. After the terror attacks it was clear that educators had fallen far out of step with the rest of country. The National Council of the Social Studies designed a curriculum that urged teachers to stress "tolerance," and as its first lesson recommended looking at the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. While Americans were flying flags, a speaker at the council's annual meeting--only a few months after the attacks--warned against singing patriotic songs like "God Bless America."

While disconcerting, this behavior is hardly new. Fordham's essayists suggest points in the 1920s and '30s for when social studies first turned down the wrong path. It likely began with the promise of efficiency in stripping out "useless" information for children of factory workers who would never go on to intellectual careers. A body of ideas was then constructed on how best to teach social studies--and an elite has patronized our children ever since.
The new social studies often rests on "student-centered instruction" which allows students to be their own learning guides. The starting premise is that students can learn only what is familiar and directly relevant to them. Thus social studies in kindergarten through the third grade teaches students first about family, then local public servants like firemen and policemen. It also holds that members of a racial minority aren't immediately capable of learning about people who are of a different race, so black kids read about the Great Zimbabwe kingdom, not Columbus. This concentric-circle approach leaves students unprepared for serious analysis. But mostly, students find it boring. To combat boredom, teachers use pictures, videos, music and other "hands on" tools to displace reading and writing. We might call it dumbing-down.

All of this serves a larger purpose. Social-studies theorists seek to create social activists. Students need not know the facts to be effective change-agents; they're taught that facts are a matter of opinion. Indeed, they need only believe that they are correct as they reject the tenets of society. The result? Elementary-school lessons that use Thanksgiving to teach that we owe redress to American Indians.

The results have been disastrous. Young Americans are ignorant of history and are increasingly poor citizens (old-fashioned term!).

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