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A nation of historical amnesiacs

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

In March, an Independent Task Force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations released its report, U.S. Education Reform and National Security. The Task Force, chaired by Joel Klein, former head of New York City public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state, warns that “education failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.” The lack of adequate civic education played a large part in the report’s scathing indictment, with the Task Force noting that, in addition to K-12 schools failing to teach students adequate math and science skills, they “are also neglecting to teach civics, the glue that holds our society together.” As the report notes,

One of the earliest goals of the first public schools was to create an active and engaged citizenry. Too many U.S. public schools have stopped teaching civics and citizenship–leaving students without knowledge of their own national history, traditions, and values. […] In civics, about a quarter of American students are proficient or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This leaves most twelfth graders unable to describe how laws are passed, unfamiliar with landmark Supreme Court decisions, and unsure of the functions of the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

Responding to the report in the Washington Examiner, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute Bruce Cole argues that the Task Force’s recommendation of increasing the attention paid to civics class does not go far enough:

[C]ivics courses on the structure and process of government are not enough for the training of informed citizens. Without knowledge of our past, we are like trees without roots. As important as it is to know what’s in the Bill of Rights, it’s equally important to understand why it was written by our founders and preserved through bloody conflicts–and why it must be safeguarded still. We cannot defend what we don’t know.

Our schools are doing a poor job teaching our history. Studies indicate that students leave high school with little knowledge of their past (over 50 percent of high school seniors scored below basic on the latest NAEP test), and they often leave college, where mandatory courses in American history are rare, with even less knowledge than they had when they entered four years earlier.

We are fast becoming a nation of historical amnesiacs.

Unfortunately, the CFR report ignores the need for the teaching of American history as necessary for national security. The report recommends study of the history and language of other countries, but is woefully silent about the enormous knowledge deficit in history education, thereby tacitly endorsing the status quo. It’s a missed opportunity.

Read the whole thing here. And, for more from Bruce Cole, be sure to come to our upcoming event on May 18, “Monumental Fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life,” at which he will be speaking. Register here.