Three out of five eighth graders tested in a nationwide survey did not know that the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case established the Supreme Court’s power to decide whether a federal law is constitutional. Half of them could not attribute the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident” to the Declaration of Independence. Fewer than half could figure out what time it was in Johannesburg if it were 10 a.m. in Lima, even when presented with a time-zone map.
The latest Nation’s Report Card on students’ mastery of history, geography and civics makes for gloomy reading. The (sort of) good news: There hasn’t been much change from four years ago, and there’s small improvement in some demographic groups, particularly among Hispanic students. The bad news: Only about a third of American eighth-graders can correctly separate which presidential powers are set forth in the Constitution from those not specified in the Constitution.
America has many educational challenges, but one of the most serious is the decline in general knowledge, especially history and geography, among students. Whether that can be attributed to the Internet, or increased non-academic demands on schools and teachers, or the zeal to test, or a decline in rigor in the nation’s classrooms and in the culture more broadly, the general-knowledge deficit is as much of a crisis as the budget deficit, maybe graver.
“To be a good citizen in a democracy you need to be well informed about history and geography,” says Hunter Rawlings, a classics scholar who is the former president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell University and, since 2011, the president of the Association of American Universities. “This country depends on an educated citizenry — and those who do not have this kind of knowledge will be voting for people who will make momentous decisions on health care, foreign policy and the economy.”
In his important new book in defense of the liberal-arts tradition, commentator Fareed Zakaria points out that the “notion that young people are somehow callow and morally unserious is not a new charge.” Nearly three decades ago E.D. Hirsch Jr., an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, decried the decline in cultural literacy, which he defined as “the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world” — essentially the fundamentals of “the major domains of human activity from sports to science.”
This notion, and Mr. Hirsch’s 1987 book, were embraced by conservatives skeptical of the “relevance” movement in the nation’s classrooms. But the value of his insight should not be confined to the 1980s, and the drive for cultural literacy ought to be endorsed by Americans of all political ideologies.
Indeed, in only the fifth sentence of his book, Mr. Hirsch, now 87 years old, argued that cultural literacy “constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents.”
Mr. Hirsch devoted — invested — 53 pages in the paperback edition listing the things all Americans should know, from Captain Ahab to Emile Zola. Louisa May Alcott is in there, but so is Booker T. Washington and, now that you mention it, so is Junipero Serra. Also Vladimir Lenin, Robert E. Lee, Lawrence of Arabia and D.H. Lawrence. And Selma, Ala.
Do you know the basic outlines of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, which you would not expect to find in an intellectual bucket list prized by conservatives? You should. In fact you must. How about the Russo-Japanese War? Essential. The Scopes Trial? Of course.
What about the historical significance of the words ‘’Kitty Hawk”? If you don’t know, check out David McCullough’s new book. Hint: The title is “The Wright Brothers.” (Of course some people will not even know who the Wright brothers were. Lynne V. Cheney attracted enormous attention in 1994 when she pointed out that the National Standards for United States History included not one reference to the Wright brothers.)
“Education is definitely changing but there’s never been a more important time to incorporate social studies into the curriculum,” says Chasidy White, an eighth-grade social-studies teacher in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. “We are in a global community and do international business and collaboration. That’s why history is important. That’s why geography is important. Social studies should be driving all the other elements in the curriculum and in many schools it is not.”
The same, of course, can be said of the arts and, in a nation where juvenile obesity is a growing concern, of old-fashioned gym class. (Americans need to climb the ropes as well as know the ropes.) The same, of course, is said about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which is why more people likely can identify the acronym STEM than know the meaning of the letters TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact that soon will be at the center of American politics).
All those things are important, but the country was founded on the idea that the people should rule and on the implicit corollary that the people should know what they are talking about — particularly when it comes to political affairs and their historical backgrounds.
“You don’t have to go very far to see the importance of the historical and geographical implications of the world we live in,” says Michelle M. Herczog, president of the National Council for the Social Studies and the history and social studies consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “The future generations will be confronted with issues that will require historical and geographical context.” She might have added that history has taught us the validity of this.
Two thoughts before we close. The first is mine, which is that the students’ poor performance is not their fault, but ours. The second comes from the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. “Consider the past,” wrote the man who was emperor of Rome for nearly 20 years.“Thou mayest foresee also the things which will be.” Those things may not be clear, but they will be discernible, which is why this knowledge crisis should concern us all.