Last month the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally financed "Nation's Report Card," released the results of its 2006 tests of historical knowledge among schoolchildren. Although there were hints of small improvements since the last NAEP test in 2001 (47 percent rather than 43 percent of 12th graders had at least a "basic" knowledge of U.S. history), the findings were still little short of appalling. The far more telling proportion, of those with "basic or below" knowledge, declined only from 89 percent to 87 percent, yet another index of the inadequacies that leave most young people incapable of understanding the world.
Secretary Spellings emphasizes that reading is the foundation for mastery of content. But the ability to read or decipher language is easily mistaken for mastery of content. Asking fourth-grade students, as the NAEP test did, to identify the 'meaning' of three sentences in Lincoln's 'House Divided' speech was to check their ability to decode his words, not to understand his ambiguous views. In a study of college seniors several years ago, the top vote getter in answer to the question 'Who was the American general at Yorktown?' was Ulysses S. Grant. In the new NAEP test, only 14 percent of 12th graders could give a reason for America's involvement in the Korean War. Do we think that, having neglected history, we can clutch at straws from multiple-choice tests that tell us little about the capacity to reason or comprehend, and claim we are preparing a generation to face an increasingly globalized world?
This may not be the most important instance of America's preferring illusion to reality in recent years, but its implications are serious. If we gave talented teachers of history their heads, they could convey the joys of this endlessly fascinating subject, with its heroes and villains, conflict and engagement, drama and discovery. Their students, in turn, could gain a sense of perspective about themselves and their world, and learn to analyze the news that surrounds them. Instead, we put the teaching of history into ever narrower straitjackets, and spin test results that demonstrate profound ignorance into symptoms of a brighter future.
Theodore K. Rabb is a professor emeritus of history at Princeton University.
Thursday, June 21, 2007