The amendment buried on Page 69 of the federal education budget for 2000 was easy to overlook. Tucked into "Repeals, Redesignation, and Amendments to Other Statutes" was a proposal by Sen. Robert C. Byrd to provide $50 million "to develop, implement and strengthen programs to teach American history … as a separate subject within school curricula."
The speed of the amendment’s passage on June 30, 2000, caught most observers unawares. Department of Education officials scurried to set up shop, draft specs for grant proposals, establish due dates, post notices, solicit reviewers, and put into place procedures for the disbursement of funds. Few historians saw the windfall coming, especially those who remembered the thrashing they got in the 1990s when they tried to tinker with the nation’s curriculum. The ill-fated National Standards for United States History — a collaboration among professional historians, curriculum specialists, teachers, and staff developers — hemorrhaged on the Senate floor before its death in a 99-1 censure (the lone dissenter fuming that the rebuke was insufficiently harsh).
But on this June day, history found its superhero. Senator Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, commanded respect as one of the longest-ranking members of Congress. He was admired for his stately manner, encyclopedic knowledge of Greek and Roman history, and his habit of drawing a folded copy of the Constitution from his breast pocket to remind fellow senators of their sworn duty. Byrd believed that the teaching of history was in crisis, that the "civic glue" that bound the strands of a polyglot mix into a single people was losing its power. He noted that only 22 percent of seniors at America’s colleges could identify the line "government of the people, by the people, for the people" as part of the Gettysburg Address. Colleges and universities were shirking their responsibility: America’s most prestigious institutions "no longer require the study of any form of history." Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, backed him up with numbers just as bleak: 81 percent of college seniors "received a grade of D or F on history questions drawn from a basic high-school examination."
What Byrd and Lieberman didn’t mention was that American students had never been the sharpest at answering decontextualized test questions. In 1917, in the first large-scale test of historical facts, Texas high-school students conflated Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis, yanked the Articles of Confederation from the 18th century and plunked them down in the middle of the Confederacy, and stared with bafflement at 1846, the beginning of the Mexican-American War, unaware of its significance in Texas history. "Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history," the testers admonished, "is not a record in which any high school can take great pride." A 1942 test of 7,000 college students, designed by Columbia University’s Allan Nevins and administered by The New York Times, found students "all too ignorant of American history," a finding recycled in 1976 just in time to pour down on the bicentennial parade: "Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited." Subsequent test administrations in 1987, 1994, and 2006 of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, the "Nation’s Report Card") showed scant improvement.
One has to wonder, then, what mix of pollen was in the air that made Byrd, Lieberman, and other senators wake up one day and fret that American memory was disintegrating. The senators, it turned out, had all read the same document, or at least its press release: Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, a report of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an organization that Lieberman characterized as a "nonprofit group dedicated to the pursuit of academic freedom." ...