No, We Don’t Know Much About History

We often hear that kids today just don’t understand American history. But it seems adults in the United States don’t fare better. Earlier this month, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation (where dear ol’ Eduflack lays his professional head) released the results of a 41,000-person survey that provided scientifically significant results for those living in all 50 states and the nation’s capital.

Those surveyed were given 20 questions from previous years’ sample question (and answer) banks for the U.S.citizenship test. Passing grade to earn citizenship in the United States is 60 percent. Approximately four in 10 nationwide were able to hit that mark. Only one state (Vermont) had a majority of residents pass the test, with 53 percent of Vermonters winning a passing grade. All in all, the results were pretty dismal.

The intent of this work was, and is, not to suggest that Americans are stupid or that history instruction is some how falling down on the job. On the contrary, in 39 states, American history is a high school requirement. Millions of American students pass that course in order to earn a high school diploma. And they are taught by highly qualified teachers with history content knowledge, not by the “sports coaches” that so many would want to blame for our historical knowledge shortcomings.

With all we know about cognitive science these days, one needs to ask what happens between high school and adulthood that has us forgetting those names, dates, and places needed to pass American history? And if we can’t remember those basic details, how are we supposed to build on it to be informed, engaged participants in our representative democracy?

Surely, we can see far too many in this country fail to see the relevance of the history basics they initially learn. It isn’t interesting. It isn’t personally important. It doesn’t reflect our families or our backgrounds. It isn’t engaging. It is simply memorizing specifics for a specific purpose, soon to be put out of our memory banks.

I’m excited that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is seeking to change that, to look at how we can make American history more relevant, interesting, and personal. I’m amped up that we are looking to do so by making history learning more experiential, using a wide range of engagements to move beyond the dusty textbook. And I’m thrilled that we are looking at history instruction not about the information needed to pass a bar night trivia contest, but instead one that helps learners, throughout their lifetimes, learn to ask questions, to probe information, to pursue issues, an generally to begin to think like historians.

It is no surprise that the media has taken note of our 50-state survey. It is always interesting to see how states stack up, particularly at a time when history, politics, and civics seem so important. In the coming weeks and months, Eduflack looks forward to continuing this discussion and looking at what is possible when it comes to transforming American history learning. For now, I’ll share just a taste of some of the media coverage on this survey, and this topic, over the past week or so.

The New York Post – https://nypost.com/2019/02/15/americans-dont-know-much-about-nations-history-survey/

Huffington Post – https://www.huffpost.com/entry/american-citizenship-exam_n_5c6add96e4b05c889d221d43

Fox News – https://www.foxnews.com/politics/why-civics-education-matters

Slate – https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/02/the-political-gabfest-trumps-national-emergency-bernie-sanders-amazons-hq2-in-new-york.html

Washington (DC) Examiner – https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/washington-secrets/doh-only-1-state-passes-us-citizenship-test-dc-fails-big

Miami (FL) Herald – https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article226427115.html

Burlington (VT) Free-Press – https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2019/02/15/vermont-named-only-state-u-s-pass-civics-test-exception-after-all/2868373002/

Detroit (MI) Free Press – https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/2019/02/19/michiganders-citizenship-test/2904395002/

Texas Public Radio – http://www.tpr.org/post/could-you-pass-us-citizenship-test-well-63-percent-texans-couldnt

The Tennesseean – https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2019/02/15/people-tennessee-arent-very-good-u-s-history-survey-says/2868329002/

Axios – https://www.axios.com/happy-presidents-day-history-is-hard-8dbed5a2-07f6-43f4-bfab-0836597bfba8.html

 

 

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