What Americans don't know about their history
A new poll gauging American knowledge on a basic question about the nation's history -- “From which country did the United States win its independence?" -- is either good news or bad news, depending on your expectations:
Twenty-six percent of those surveyed did not know that the United States achieved its independence from Great Britain, according to the poll, conducted by the nonprofit Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Six percent named a different country, including France, China, Japan, Mexico and Spain. Twenty percent said they weren’t sure.
The pollsters broke down the numbers and found gaps in knowledge according to region: 32 percent of Southerners weren’t sure or named the wrong country; 26 percent of Midwesterners were in the same category, as were 25 percent of Westerners and 16 percent of Northeasterners.
More depressing results -- depending on your expectations -- were found in a 2007 poll conducted by the U.S. Mint.
It showed that only 7 percent of those surveyed could name the first four presidents in order: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Thirty percent knew that Jefferson was the third president, 57 percent identified Jefferson as the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and 57 percent knew that Washington led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
As you can see, there is a reason that advocates of history and civic education are in something of a panic about how little kids are getting.
Before I carry on with how much we don’t know, let me suggest one way that you and your children can learn a lot about U.S. history: Read --and ask your schools to invest in -- Joy Hakim’s award-winning “A History of US” series.
Though the series won the 1997 James A. Michener Award for Writing, was turned into a PBS series and draws rave reviews from historians, teachers and students from elementary school through, believe it or not, college, Hakim has had a tough time getting the books into classrooms.
That has everything to do with the way textbooks are written today -- blandly, by committee -- and how they are marketed and sold by the big publishing companies, which have a lock on sales in the big states. Hakim’s series is published by Oxford University Press, which doesn’t have the resources of the huge education publishers.
We have some idea about how much kids know about U.S. history because of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test commonly called “the nation’s report card” because it is periodically given to select grades across the country. Assessments in civics and history were given to students this year, and results will be released in 2011.
Here are some of the results of the last U.S. history NAEP, given in 2006:
It’s probably time to stop wasting effort on polls telling us what we already know, and figuring out how we can reverse this. Of course this is not a new phenomenon; Americans historically haven’t known much about their own history.
But that’s no excuse.
Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed. Bookmark it!
| July 3, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories: Civics Education, History | Tags: civics education, knowledge of july 4th, marist poll, marist poll on independence, naep, naep and civics, national assessment of educational progress, what americans know
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