Education Special Report

Back to School, Back to U.S. History Basics

Back to School, Back to U.S. History Basics

By George Nethercutt - September 20, 2011

U.S. students have returned to school this year at a moment of crisis in American education. As the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found, only 12 percent of high school seniors, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 20 percent of fourth-graders qualified as proficient in U.S. history. How can a country expect to survive when nearly nine out of 10 seniors don't know their basic history?

Answer: It can't. When only 35 percent of fourth-graders know the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, then something is fundamentally wrong with not only our educational system, but also the future of our country. As Thomas Jefferson said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Given the seriousness of the problem, one might expect that politicians are rushing before the cameras with solutions. Well, they are, but not the solutions American schoolchildren need right now. Instead, state governments are too busy legislating political correctness rather than confronting the dangerous ignorance pervading our public schools.

For instance, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation this summer requiring students to learn about gay history. The law met with universal acclaim from gay rights groups, which applauded Brown's action as "historic." While it might certainly be historic -- in that no other state has gone to such lengths to legislate political correctness -- the law does nothing to help students learn essential American history; it places an undeserved premium on teaching a nonessential curriculum.

Sadly, what California has done is swiftly becoming a trend. Earlier this year, Maryland adopted a policy that students must exhibit "environmental literacy" to graduate from high school. Students interested in environmental studies can pursue it to their heart's content, but such studies shouldn't be at the expense of understanding the fundamental story of how modern America came to be.

The biggest problem with these courses is that they don't have the same time-tested educational value as, say, learning from where the ideas in the Declaration of Independence came, or what the U.S. Constitution actually says. Constant curriculum tinkering from elected officials to appease whatever interest group is most vocal at any one time is not in the best interests of our children.

If American students don't learn about the concepts of justice, individual rights, free enterprise, capitalism, representative government, sovereignty and national security that built this great nation, then there can be no guarantee that those concepts -- and others like them -- will be perpetuated for the benefit of future generations.

As I write in my book, "In Tune With America: Our History in Song," the importance of a proper civics education is not to learn history for history's sake, but to ensure that every succeeding generation appreciates the vital components that sustain and strengthen our free society -- for the long term. The responsibility of every generation is to carry on the lessons we inherited from those who came before us.

Of course, this lesson applies to adults as well as students. Unfortunately, today's average American adult is just as bad -- if not worse -- than his younger peer. A March 2011 Newsweek study, appropriately titled "How Dumb Are We?," found that out of 1,000 American citizens, 60 percent didn't know that U.S. senators serve six-year terms and 88 percent couldn't name John Jay, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison as one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers.

Children learn by mimicking their parents. And if mom and dad don't care about history, junior certainly won't. So as we begin another school year, parents have more reason than ever to set a good example for their children by fostering a love of history.

Subtlety is often the best tactic: Make sure they see you reading a biography on one of the Founders; record a television program on American history and watch it during family hours; or, simply, ask if they need any help on their U.S. history homework.

When our educational system fails to properly instill knowledge and appreciation of our shared heritage, it is up to all of us to fill in the gaps. Nothing less than the preservation of our freedom is at stake.

George Nethercutt, a former Republican Congressman from Washington State and Chairman of the George Nethercutt Foundation, is the author of "In Tune with America: Our History in Song" (Marquette Books, 2010).

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