The Dismal State of a Vital Subject
Feb 17th 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition
AMERICAN history is in vogue, if not well understood. American revolutionaries are reincarnated as tea-partiers. Pocket editions of the constitution are a must-have accessory for politicians. Last month Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman and tea-party favourite, told Iowans that America’s Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more”. Never mind that this was untrue. It sounded nice.
History teaching is far from the biggest crisis in American education. But it is a problem nevertheless, and a neglected one. A broad effort to create voluntary national standards does not include history. No Child Left Behind, George Bush’s education law, tests pupils on maths, reading and science. On February 14th Barack Obama stressed the importance of teaching science, technology and 21st-century skills. Meanwhile America’s schoolchildren score even more poorly in history than in maths: 64% of high-school seniors scored “basic” on a national maths test in 2009, but only 47% reached that level on the most recent national history test.
One problem, a new report argues, is that states have pathetic standards for what history should be taught. Good standards do not ensure that students will learn history. But they are a crucial guide, according to Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think-tank. A study from Fordham, published on February 16th, grades each state for the quality of its history standards. Twenty-eight states received a “D” or an “F”.
Many states emphasise abstract concepts rather than history itself. In Delaware, for example, pupils “will not be expected to recall any specific event or person in history”. Other states teach children about early American history only once, when they are 11. Yet other states show scars from the culture wars. A steady, leftward lean has been followed by a violent lurch to the right. Standards for Texas, passed last year, urge pupils to question the separation of church and state and “evaluate efforts by global organisations to undermine US sovereignty through the use of treaties”.
Some states fare better. South Carolina has set impressive standards—for example, urging teachers to explain that colonists did not protest against taxation simply because taxes were too high. Other states, Mr Finn argues, would do well to follow South Carolina’s example. “Twenty-first century skills” may help pupils become better workers; learning history makes them better citizens.
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