To keep the republic, we need an engaged, woke, and knowledgeable citizenry. We need generations of voters to know, understand, and appreciate our history and its impact on our future. Those who possess such knowledge will indeed lead us for generations to come.
As part of dear ol’ Eduflack’s continues efforts to improve how American history is taught and learned, I was privileged to spend a half hour discussing the issue with Missouri’s National Public Radio affiliate.
It was a good discussion, moving beyond the data on how little we know about history and beginning to discuss what we can and should do about it. You can find the full segment here.
Much thanks to KCUR in Kansas City for hosting the segment, and gratitude to KUT Public Radio in Austin, TX for allowing me to broadcast live out of their studios this week.
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.
Miami (FL) Herald – https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article226427115.html
Detroit (MI) Free Press – https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/2019/02/19/michiganders-citizenship-test/2904395002/
Patrick Riccards, a communications and education policy consultant who’s worked with both Democrats and Republicans, said one strategy for these and other candidates would be to avoid getting into the nuts and bolts of their views about schools.
“I would wrap the issues of education into the larger issues that will rally [Democratic] voters to primaries and caucuses,” Riccards said, including “the larger social justice and equity discussions, as well as talk of guns and safety; weaving it into economic policy, as part of a stronger commitment to workforce development.”
From Andrew Ujifusa’s Spin Class: These Democrats Could Face Tricky Questions About Education, in Education Week
Recent headlines are clear. We received the 2016 election results we did because the Russians allegedly were able to dupe a significant number of American voters, particularly Bernie Sanders supporters and African-American voters, vote against Hillary. Whether forcing Green Party votes or keeping individuals away from polling places entirely, Russian intelligence spiked our 2016 vote.
Or it was the National Enquirer. By keeping salacious gossip – whether true or no – about the Republican candidate from the front pages of the tabloid, the publishers of the Enquirer handed the election to Trump. The supermarket rag single-handedly provided Donald Trump with his “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.
Or maybe it was Facebook’s fault, for not properly regulating what its users put forward as “news sources.” Or Twitter for giving Trump a constant platform. Or social media in general for not providing a proper nanny state for telling the average voter what information they should have access to, what they shouldn’t, and what to believe.
Two years have passed since the 2016 elections, and we still want to believe that we got the outcome we got because someone, or someones, did something nefarious to us. The American people are just victims here, with election outcomes the majority of Americans dislike forced upon it by outside forces.
Instead of buying into these conspiracy theories, though, maybe we should be having a serious discussion about a very real problem. We should be voicing our frustrations not at the Russians or the tabloids, but instead at the general absence of an informed populace.
According to this year’s Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, less than a third of Americans can correctly name the three branches of the Federal government. A majority don’t seem to understand how the Federal government actually operates.
A recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only a third of Americans could pass the basic immigration exam. The majority of Americans didn’t know which states were part of the original 13 states, who the United States fought in World War II, or when the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land.
Where is our collective outrage about how little we actually know about American civics and history? Where is our growing frustration with a populace uneducated about what government can and has done to address the most pressing issues of our age?
It is heartening to see a majority of states advocating for improved civics education, looking to equip students with a better understanding of how government works, offering them the facts necessary to improve our performance on the annual Constitution Day survey. It is a start.
But it is a far cry from what should be our goal. It’s terrific for the average American to learn – and retain – enough facts and figures to answer survey questions correctly or to outperform peers at a trivia night at the local tavern. Yes, we need to know names and dates. We also need to understand what has happened in our nation’s history, why it happened, and why it is significant. We need to make history relevant for all Americans. Relevant to learn. Relevant to retain. Relevant to apply.
It’s easy to blame social media campaigns or the tabloids for election outcomes. It is far more valuable to understand yellow journalism and how media was used to advance McCarthyism.
It’s easy to accuse politicians of voter suppression. It is far more valuable to understand the Jim Crow era and the fight for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It’s easy to attack the Electoral College for being antiquated. It is far more valuable to understand why we have it and how it has been used and abused in past elections.
When tens of millions of Americans begin to think like historians – knowing our history, understanding why things happened, and appreciating how those lessons of the past can be applied to the realities of today or the promise of tomorrow – we are a better country. Instead of just casting votes, we cast educated votes. We make decisions at the ballot box with a better understanding of how that single action can – and has – impacted our nation for decades to come.
Equally important, a better educated populace greatly reduces the strength of those outside forces we are growing to fear. With a firmer understanding of history, we don’t need social media clickbait to help us make election decisions. We instead cast our votes based on knowledge, facts, and a keener understanding of our history.
A better knowledge of American history can be a powerful thing. And it may just be the most valuable tool for improving elections … and election outcomes.
Earlier this year, Eduflack was honored to be named the winner of the SPOKEie in non-profit education, recognizing the top spokespeople in key industry sectors. As part of the award, I was fortunate to do an video segment with the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, the winner in the non-profit youth category.
In our show, we talk about the importance of branding, particularly in the non-profit arena. You can watch the full segment here.
For those that prefer the written word, the full transcript can be found here.
Apologies for this site being relatively silent recently. Dear ol’ Eduflack has been hard at work on a major effort focused on the teaching and learning of American history. The full announcement from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation can be found here.
The headline is that, why many of us say history and social studies were our favorite subjects while in school, we don’t seem to be retaining what we’ve learned. In a national survey of 1,000 Americans, conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies, the WW Foundation discovered that only about a third of Americans could pass an American history test based on questions found on the actual U.S. Citizenship Test. A whopping 64 percent of those surveyed could not get a 60 percent on the test, failing to answer at least 12 of the 20 questions correctly.
What is more sad is that we don’t seem to know who the United States fought during World War II, when the U.S. Constitution was written, or even why we broke from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. Despite our addiction to the musical Hamilton, we believe that Thomas Jefferson was an author of the Federalist Papers. Far too many thought Ike was a U.S. general during the Civil War.
And while it was a Woodrow Wilson Foundation study, most didn’t know what dear ol’ Woodrow was president during World War I.
The story on our collective lack of historical perspective has taken off like wildfire.
The Oregonian has an interesting take here.
The Washington Examiner got the party started here.
The Miami Herald began the drumbeat for McClatchy newspapers here.
All of this points to one important fact. We need to do a far better job when it comes to the learning of American history. We need to make history more interesting, more relevant, and more engaging for the learner. Hopefully, we will see such efforts coming in 2019. These survey results show it is clearly needed.