WASHINGTON – If U.S. history and civics are the basis of public education,then American schools are failing.
Bestselling author and historian David McCullough explained the decline in history education Thursday and suggested ways to reverse it before the Senate Education and Early Childhood Development Subcommittee.
“Sadly,history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether,” McCullough said.
A 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. history and civics showed that American students are failing to grasp the significance of people,places and events of history.
Charles E. Smith,director of the National Assessment Governing Board,said the test revealed that only 18 percent of fourth graders and 11 percent of 12th graders showed above-basic knowledge of U.S. history. He said 57 percent of 12th graders tested below basic levels.
And history assessments were not included in No Child Left Behind legislation. Smith said that could lead to some states reducing their requirements.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,D-Mass.,said he would make history a priority before renewing national education legislation,but until then,he and Sen. Lamar Alexander,R-Tenn.,the subcommittee chairman,are attempting to mandate history testing.
“We can't insist that every child will develop a love of history,” Kennedy said. “But we can give them a chance.”
Alexander said the testing would be scheduled every four years to go along with science,reading and math exams.
“Monday is July 4th,Independence Day,” Alexander said. “The sad fact is that for many Americans,they don't know why we celebrate the Fourth of July.”
Alexander suggested that public education was based on educating immigrants about American society and history,but McCullough quickly taught the senator a lesson of his own.
“The basis of our public school system was born before our Constitution was written,” he said.
McCullough said one problem plaguing history education is the lack of liberal arts training among teachers. Many universities focus on general education theory rather than requiring teachers to major in the humanities,he said.
“The best teachers are the ones who are really excited about what they're teaching,” McCullough said. “It's almost impossible to love what you don't know.”
Another hurdle for history educators is the lack of fascinating textbooks,McCullough said. He listed a few primary school page turners,but “others are dismal almost beyond belief,” he said. “It's almost as if they've been written to kill any interest.”
Requiring assessments is a start,but McCullough said Congress should also increase activities at its National Park Service historical sites to educate teachers in summer seminars.
A representative of the Smithsonian Institution pointed out how much information about history is available at its museums,and a Rhode Island teachers union representative said his state doesn't have any documented standards for civics or history.
McCullough also said that parents and grandparents should tell more stories and visit more historical sites. He said he recalled visiting Monticello,Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home,with a friend one summer and falling in love with history.
“Those trips can change your life,” McCullough said.