Blog Post

Americans Just Don’t Know Their History!

testCommentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

There's a huge price to pay for not knowing our history but you'd never know that by the latest test scores of eighth graders of whom only a quarter were aware that Americans consider the United States to be a democracy!

The Associated Press is reporting on the results of 2014 testing of more than 29,000 eighth graders on the subjects of U.S. history, civics and geography which were released yesterday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Known as the National Report Card, the test results are raising alarms among educators who were shocked to discover that less than half of the students were able to interpret time differences using an atlas with time zones. Only a third knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most Americans.

A large share of the students only managed to score at the “basic” level, meaning they have only a partial mastery of the subjects. Only one percent of test takers in U.S. history, three percent in geography and two percent in civics scored in the advanced level.

Michelle Herczog, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said the results “point to a need for immediate action.”

Tackling issues like terrorism, human rights, race relations and poverty require a deep understanding of the historical and geographic context, she told the AP.

“How do we, as a nation, maintain our status in the world if future generations of Americans do not understand our nation’s history, world geography or civics principles or practices?” she asked.

student computerOverall, only 18 percent of students demonstrated a solid performance or better in U.S. history but did slightly better in geography (27%) and civics (23%).

For those who hope high school academic programs will get students up to speed on history will be disappointed to know that high school students score just as badly on these tests. In 2011, the Nation’s Report Card found that a whopping 87 percent of high school seniors who were tested in 2010 showed a less than solid academic performance on the subject.

At the time, educators told the Daily Mail that the federal No Child Left Behind Law, with its heavy emphasis on reading and math, was causing schools to focus too much on these subjects to the neglect of history and science.

But what’s the excuse for U.S. college students? Testing done in 2012 by two Kent State University professors found that today’s college student does not grasp essential facts about history, geography, science, math and the arts.

For instance, less than five percent knew the name of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation (Monticello) or that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes tales. Even more shocking, in spite of all the news coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, 30 percent of the students tested said they thought Baghdad was the capital of Afghanistan (the correct answer is Iraq). Even worse, many couldn’t name the capital of France (Paris) and 12 percent thought Mount Everest was in the Appalachians (it's in the Himalayas). And they’re paying how much per semester?

This certainly explains the advent of the so-called “clueless voters” who now permeate American society. This discovery was made in 2009 when the Intercollegiate Studies Institute gave a 33-question civics quiz to 2,500 random Americans and found that only half of adults in this country can name all three branches of government.

This explains a lot about how we got to where we are today. As our nation confronts issues as pivotal and wide-ranging as the Iranian nuclear deal, same-sex marriage, government control and the economy, we need voters who know how to steer this nation into a brighter future.

This takes vision, and the only way to acquire it is to know where we've been, and to heed the lessons the past has taught us.

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