"Learning the Lessons of American History"

These three esssays on teaching American history appear on the Senate web page of Robert Byrd,

the chief advocate for the Teaching American History Grants Program.

(http://byrd.senate.gov/hist_index.html)

 

1. Teaching American history as a separate subject

"An unfortunate trend of blending history with a variety of other subjects to form a hybrid

called social studies has taken hold in our schools. "

WASHINGTON, D.C.... The Senate approved an amendment to the education bill, offered by U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., that would assist schools in teaching American history as a separate subject.

"Every February, our nation celebrates the birth of two of our most revered presidents -- George Washington, the father of our nation, and Abraham Lincoln, the eternal martyr of freedom.  Sadly, I fear that many of our nation's school children may never fully appreciate the lives and accomplishments of these two American giants of history," Byrd said.

"They have been robbed of that appreciation -- robbed by schools that no longer stress a knowledge of American history.  In fact, study after study has shown that the historical significance of our nation's grand celebrations of patriotism -- such as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July -- is lost on the majority of young Americans.  What a waste.  What a shame," Byrd added.

Byrd's education amendment would provide $100 million for the continuation of an American history grant program that the senator initiated last year.  The program is designed to promote the teaching of history as a separate subject in our nation's schools. 

"An unfortunate trend of blending history with a variety of other subjects to form a hybrid called social studies has taken hold in our schools.  Further, the history books provided to our young people all too frequently gloss over the finer points of America's past.  My amendment provides incentives to help spur a return to the teaching of traditional American history," Byrd said.

Byrd's grant program has received support from the National Council for History Education, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, the American Historical Association, and National History Day.

"American students, regardless of race, religion, or gender, must know the history of the land to which they pledge allegiance.  They should be taught about the Founding Fathers of this nation, the battles that they fought, the ideals that they championed, and the enduring effects of their accomplishments.  Without this knowledge, they cannot appreciate the hard won freedoms that are our birthright," Byrd said.

 

2. Why teach American history as a separate classroom subject?

"An American student, regardless of race, religion, or gender, must know

the history of the land to which they pledge allegiance."

Every February, our nation celebrates the birth of two of our most revered presidents -- George Washington, the father of our country who victoriously led his ill-fitted assembly of militiamen against the armies of King George, and Abraham Lincoln, the eternal martyr of freedom whose powerful voice and iron will shepherded a divided nation toward a more perfect Union.

Sadly, I fear that many of our nation's school children may never fully appreciate the lives and accomplishments of these two American giants of history.  They have been robbed of that appreciation -- robbed by a school system that no longer stresses a knowledge of American history.  In fact, study after study has shown that many of the true meanings of America's grand celebrations of patriotism -- such as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July -- are lost on the majority of our young people.  What a shame.

In 1994, the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessed fourth, eighth, and twelfth-grade students' knowledge of U.S. history.  The results of this study are deeply disturbing.  The study divided students into three groups -- advanced, proficient, and basic -- based on their ability to recall, understand, analyze, and interpret U.S. history.  Only 17 percent of fourth graders, 14 percent of eighth graders, and 11 percent of twelfth graders were judged to be "proficient."  Over one-third of fourth and eighth graders failed to reach the "basic" level and more than half of the twelfth graders surveyed could not even achieve the "basic" category in the history of their own nation.  This deplorable record indicates that too many American children lack even the most rudimentary grounding in U.S. history.

Even more disturbing were the results of a study released last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that tested the knowledge of college seniors who were on the verge of graduation. The organization gave students from 55 of our nation's finest colleges and universities a typical high school-level American history exam.  Nearly 80 percent of these college seniors earned no better than a "D."

An American student, regardless of race, religion, or gender, must know the history of the land to which they pledge allegiance.  They should be taught about the Founding Fathers of this Nation, the battles that they fought, the ideals that they championed, and the enduring effects of their accomplishments.  They should be taught about our nation's failures, our mistakes, and the inequities of our past.  Without this knowledge, they cannot appreciate the hard won freedoms that are our birthright.

 

3. "Once again, a test of young peoples' knowledge of history -- in this case,

the history of our own nation -- has demonstrated a sorry ignorance."

"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child."

"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born," admonished Cicero, "is to remain always a child."  If Cicero were to look at history lessons for America's schoolchildren today, he might conclude that they will never grow up.

Once again, a test of young peoples' knowledge of history -- in this case, the history of our own nation -- has demonstrated a sorry ignorance.  What is particularly disconcerting about this report is that it reflects the knowledge base of college seniors from some of the best colleges and universities in the nation, not younger children with many years of learning still ahead of them.

The test, sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, was given to college seniors at 55 top colleges and universities and consisted of questions from a high school-level American history test.  Nearly 80 percent of those tested earned a grade of only a "D" or an "F."  A mere 23 percent could identify James Madison as the principal Framer of the Constitution.  More than a third of those asked did not know that the Constitution established the division of powers in American government.  Just 60 percent could correctly select the 50-year period in which the Civil War occurred -- not the correct years, or even the correct decade, but the correct half-century!  A scant 35 percent could correctly identify Harry S. Truman as the President in office at the start of the Korean War.

In the light of such dismal knowledge of our national history, I added an amendment to an appropriations bill in December 2000 that provides $50 million in grants for schools that teach American history as a separate subject within school curricula.  The U.S. Department of Education recently published the rules and regulations for this initiative, and the application process is open until July.

Too many schools today are lumping history together with other subjects and offering them as courses broadly titled "social studies."  This conglomeration certainly does not provide the kind of focused study that history deserves and requires.  Moreover, it shortchanges our young people who will some day be the leaders of our nation.  

It is my hope that this grant initiative will encourage more schools to develop, implement, and strengthen classes in American history.  If they are to have any hope of being prepared to lead in the future, America's students need a deeper understanding of our nation's past.