History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens

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Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

Politically, the group’s leaders are strange bedfellows. Its founding board includes Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that is a powerful force in the Democratic Party, and Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University who was assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. Its executive director is Lynne Munson, a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former special assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne.

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    More Comments:

    R.R. Hamilton - 3/4/2008

    Why does the thought of hordes of uninformed youths who "took a second to look up from their PSP's their iPods and text messengers" to vote not fill me with the same joy that it does Mr. Reich?

    Bring back the literacy requirement for voting. Please.

    Gabriel A. Reich - 2/28/2008

    As has been pointed out by Sam Wineburg (http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/90.4/wineburg.html) American adults have been kvetching about what our 17 year olds don't know since we first started testing them in the 1920s. Let's be clear about what these data mean before we have a collective conniption fit.

    First: we know very little about how people reason when answering multiple choice questions. Thus, it is very difficult to make very valid statements about what scores on surveys like this one really mean.

    Second: I'd like to know how American adults would do on Ravitch's test. I've long had a fantasy of locking policy makers in a room and administering the tests that they foist upon our young with such reckless abandon.

    As for the policy implications of this study, I do support the strengthening of a liberal education in this country. With the pressures put on elementary schools by No Child Left Behind, history and social studies education is being replaced by a focus on what administrators believe will increase literacy and math test scores. How one can study history without becoming more literate is a mystery to me.

    We must be clear that the "Common Core" advocated here is, at heart, a nationalist history. Transmission of a nationalist history has not abated because of No Child Left Behind. I'm willing to bet that the American 17 year olds who did so poorly on this survey can recite very clearly the meta-narrative of American nationalist history: we started as a scrappy bunch of liberty loving individualists and we have build a country that has progressively extended more rights to more and more of the people who live here.

    I believe that what our 17 year olds need to be able to do is to make informed decisions. To do so they need to know stuff, the more the better. They also need to know why it's important to know stuff (testing skews this completely). And finally, they need to know how to think about the stuff they've learned! How to weigh evidence. How to construct a historical argument. How to look for more than one cause of an event or phenomenon, etc. Call it critical thinking, historical thinking, or whatever you like. I don't think Dianne Ravitch, a VERY nuanced thinker, is against all of this. She has consistenly supported a rigorous liberal history education. She does, however, worry that young people will reach the "wrong" conclusions on big historical questions more than I do.

    I think that a coutervailing piece of evidence that balances the findings of this report is the enthusiasm with which young people have approached the coming presidential election. They are even excited about the primaries! That means they took a second to look up from their PSP's their iPods and text messengers and actually give a shit about something important! Our dour 30+ could learn something from them.