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There's No Evidence Students Today Are More Ignorant About History

Sam Wineburg, professor of education at Stanford, in the Journal of American History (subscribers only) (March 2004):

Results from the 1987, 1994, and 2001 administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress ( NAEP , known informally as the"Nation's Report Card") have shown little deviation from earlier trends. In the wake of the 2001 test came the same stale headlines ("Kids Get 'Abysmal' Grade in History: High School Seniors Don't Know Basics," USA Today ); the same refrains of cultural decline ("a nation of historical nitwits," wagged the Greensboro [North Carolina] News and Record ); the same holier-than-thou indictments of today's youth ("dumb as rocks," hissed the Weekly Standard ); and the same boy-who-cried-wolf predictions of impending doom ("when the United States is at war and under terrorist threat," young people's lack of knowledge is particularly dangerous). Scores on the 2001 test, after a decade of the"standards movement," were virtually identical to their predecessors. Six in ten seniors"lack even a basic knowledge of American history," wrote the Washington Post , results that NAEP officials castigated as"awful,""unacceptable," and"abysmal.""The questions that stumped so many students," lamented Secretary of Education Rod Paige,"involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation, and our role in the world." As for the efficacy of standards in the states that adopted them, the test yielded no differences between students of teachers who reported adhering to standards and those who did not. Remarked a befuddled Paige,"I don't have any explanation for that at all." ...

Pointing to the latest NAEP results, the Albert Shanker Institute, sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, claimed in a blue-ribbon report,"Education for Democracy," that"something has gone awry.... We now have convincing evidence that our students are woefully ignorant of who we are as Americans," indifferent to"the common good," and"disconnected from American history." ...

Historical memory shows an especial plasticity when it turns to assessing young people's character and capability. The same Diane Ravitch, educational historian and member of the NAEP governing board, who in May 2002 expressed alarm that students"know so little about their nation's history" and possess"so little capacity to reflect on its meaning" did a one-eighty eleven months later when rallying Congress for funds in history education:

Although it is customary for people of a certain age to complain about the inadequacies of the younger generation, such complaints ring hollow today.... What we have learned in these past few weeks is that this younger generation, as represented on the battlefields of Iraq, may well be our finest generation.

The phrase"our finest generation" of course echoes the journalist Tom Brokaw's characterization of the men and women who fought in World War II as the"greatest generation." Those were the college students who in 1943 abandoned the safety of the quadrangle for the hazards of the beachhead. Yet only in our contemporary mirror do they look"great." Back then, grown-ups dismissed them as knuckleheads, even questioning their ability to fight. Writing in the New York Times Magazine in May 1942, a fretful Allan Nevins wondered whether a historically illiterate fighting force might be a national liability."We cannot understand what we are fighting for unless we know how our principles developed." If"knowing our principles" means scoring well on objective tests, we might want to update that thesis.

A sober look at a century of history testing provides no evidence for the"gradual disintegration of cultural memory" or a" growing historical ignorance." The only thing growing seems to be our amnesia of past ignorance. If anything, test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover—and rediscover—their"shameful" ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention. Appeals to it are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a claim that can be anchored in the documentary record.