Jewish World Review May 19, 2002/ 8 Sivan, 5762
Big Bird prepares the tots for dancing numbers and letters. Jimmy Kimmel, host of Comedy Central's "The Man Show," can produce a laugh a minute, but not about the Boston Tea Party or the Civil War. Our teen-agers can rap, rock and roll, but they don't have any idea why any of our grandfathers came to America. Most high school seniors, almost old enough to vote, don't know why we have a Bill of Rights. They haven't a clue to why slaves were counted in the Constitution as only three-fifths of a person. Who the president was who opened diplomatic relations with China is an enduring mystery.
The higher the grade, the lower the understanding of history seems to be. The most recent report card, issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the United States, finds that more than a third of our fourth graders, almost 40 percent of the eighth graders, and more than half of our high-school seniors lack a rudimentary understanding of history.
As bad as their lack of knowledge of history is, reactions and rationalizations over the "Nation's Report Card" are more depressing than the low test scores. Gary B. Nash, a history professor at the UCLA, thinks our expectations, which seem pretty low to me, are too high.
"I'm not sure we should even expect 18-year-olds to remember dates and facts and names and places if there's no practical use for that knowledge," he told the Los Angeles Times. The only practical knowledge the young need, apparently, is how to slip a CD into the changer and turn up the volume.
Robert H. Samuelson, a man of common sense, scoffs in The Washington Post, under the headline "What We Don't Know Won't Hurt Us," at "the alarmist notion that ignorance threatens our social cohesion or democracy by cutting us from the roots that define the American experience."
Such optimism ("What? Me worry?") may be momentarily reassuring, but the problem is that we won't find out until it's too late whether defenders of our historical deficiencies called it correctly. What's alarming about this rampant ignorance was spelled out by Roderick R. Paige, the secretary of Education. "The questions that stumped so many students involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation, and our role in the world," he said. "Our shared history is what unites us as Americans."
It certainly doesn't help the situation that more than half the teachers teaching history to junior and senior high school students didn't major or minor in history in college. That is crucial because, as smart as they might be, they haven't a conceptual foundation in the subject and probably teach more from someone else's lesson plans than from deep knowledge - or even from shallow knowledge.
The "Nation's Report Card" was issued just as a 125-page paperback, "9-11," by the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, became a surprise best-seller, selling over 160,000 copies in the first few weeks. If anyone takes advantage of historical ignorance in interpreting American history, Chomsky does, but lots of people are buying his book. A lot of them would probably have flunked the history test, too.
Chomsky interprets American history as one long continuum of American terrorism. He mixes lies with anti-American rhetoric, equating terrorism against the United States with American military action against communists in Central America and terrorists in the Middle East. Anyone who has a minimum of knowledge and understanding of what's really going on in the world could easily refute his rant, but who knows history?
The First Amendment protects speech and academic freedom, even dumb speech and foolish uses of academic freedom, but the First Amendment does not actually require dumb foolishness. The Founding Fathers relied on a modicum of understanding developed in an educated class. The public school system was set up to teach the common man (and woman) how to think and thus how to lead, how to learn from our past by first learning of the past, all the better shape the future. It hasn't always worked out that way. But we've nurtured a pride that filtered through facts and concepts on which our country was built, carefully learned and renewed.
Diane Ravitch, a historian and professor of education at New York University, is a member of the board that governs the history tests that identified the Achilles heel (who was he?) of history teaching. "Our ability to defend - intelligently and thoughtfully - what we as a nation hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of what we hold dear."
We can't take that for granted, can we?