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FIELDS: Don’t know much about history

We can’t expect the nation’s preservation without appreciation of its past

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First the good news: The nation's eighth-graders are doing better in history class. Now the bad news: They're not doing much better. Gains in test scores are small, made by the lowest performers, and just 17 percent of those tested are "proficient," or competent.

It gets worse. Just 12 percent of high school seniors, who are getting ready to vote for the first time, have a proficient knowledge of history. If you're looking for a tinsel lining, you could point to 20 percent of fourth-graders who are described as proficient, but that means eight of 10 haven't learned very much during their tender years in the classroom. The standardized test results known as the "nation's report card," issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, are based on tests taken by thousands of schoolchildren in both private and public schools. Such dismal percentages once sounded alarms for parents and teachers but now mostly get a bored yawn. What else is new?

"We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate," says historian David McCullough in the Wall Street Journal. "I know how much these young people - even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning - don't know. It's shocking." Mr. McCullough, who has lectured on more than 100 college campuses, tells of a young woman who came up to him after a lecture at a renowned university in the Midwest. "Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 Colonies were all on the East Coast," she said.

Mr. McCullough has learned firsthand how formidable the obstacles have become. Emotional appeals in politically correct courses - women's history, African history, environmental history - take the place of chronological and conceptual study across the educational arc from tiny tots to graduate students. From the early grades, our children learn how horrible slavery was but spend little time studying the how, why and when we righted that wrong and the wrongs that followed. Who we are comes from what we reject as much as from what we embrace.

The problems with our schools run deep, affecting not only how the next generation is learning to make reasoned choices in determining public policy but how ignorance undercuts pride and patriotism, the sense of America's core identity. It's not merely academic. When seniors were asked about Brown v. Board of Education and what social problem it was supposed to correct, only 2 percent knew it was the Supreme Court decision that declared laws compelling segregation in the public schools to be unconstitutional.

The recent report card in history was issued just as I attended a conference sponsored by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, to discuss the American identity, to talk about the changing sense of "we the people." We heard concern for the way we're losing the moral tissue that connects the first principles established by the Founding Fathers. Intellectual trends like multiculturalism, globalism and a sneering skepticism of America have diminished the shared memories and common values that have held the nation together through war, Depression and social upheaval.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, for example, but that shouldn't blind us to his ideals. Yet impressionistic young people are taught to belittle the whole man. The author of the Declaration of Independence is trivialized with simplistic moral condescension. When our history is reduced to our flaws, celebrating fragmentation in hyphenated Americans, the young can't understand the cohesive principles on which our liberty is based.

This becomes especially dangerous as younger generations fail to learn about the separation of powers, checks and balances of government and why Congress enacted the Bill of Rights. There's no appreciation for democracy, which, after all, originated here.

Best-selling books on atheism testify to the strength of American pluralism, but when our schoolchildren lack the knowledge to discriminate intellectually as taught by history, they fail to appreciate how American ideas are rooted in such self-evident truths, that "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," and become insecure in what it means to be an American.

"In God we trust, yes," observes the theological scholar Michael Novak. "But for all men there must be checks and balances." American citizens need not profess faith in the Creator to be good citizens any more than they must attend a church or synagogue, but our children should be taught where the roots of American identity come from. The "nation's report card" sounds the alarm that the lessons of history are threatened when those lessons are never learned.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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