April 24, 2008, 06:12 AM ET
Kids' Knowledge of History
When the NAEP History scores came out last month, and the rate of 12th-graders scoring “below basic” went from 57 percent in 1994 and 2001 to 53 percent in 2006, the rise gave optimists and pessimists grounds for judgment. “We got improvement,” some said, while others replied, “We’ve still got more than half of them with an ‘F.’”
Another survey of historical knowledge appeared several weeks back entitled Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now. The survey received vast coverage, and its findings were just as negative as the NAEP scores (example: only 43 percent placed the Civil War in the period 1850-1900). This week, the author of the report Rick Hess has a summary statement on the findings, concluding:When it comes to familiarity with major historical events and significant literary accomplishments, America’s 17-year-olds fare rather poorly. When asked relatively simple multiple-choice questions and graded on a generous scale, teens on the cusp of adulthood earn a D overall. . . . When it comes to familiarity with the base of knowledge that enables us to engage in conversations about values and policy, our 17-year-olds are barely literate.
His statement contrasts with another survey that came out recently, this conducted by Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano. It was reported in advance here, and a post appeared here. Wineburg and Monte-Sano asked 11th- and 12th-graders to rank the ten “most famous Americans in history,” and the five most famous women, excluding presidents and presidents’ wives. They reported the findings in the latest issue of Journal of American History.
Here is the first list:
1. Martin Luther King, Jr. 2. Rosa Parks 3. Harriet Tubman 4. Susan B. Anthony 5. Benjamin Franklin 6. Amelia Earhart 7. Oprah Winfrey 8. Marilyn Monroe 9. Thomas Edison 10. Albert Einstein
Based on the USA Today story, I wrote that these “selections indicate just how far out of the way current social studies curricula go in emphasizing women and African-Americans.” I thought, though, that concessions should be made for the instrument asking for the “most famous,” not the most influential or important figures in American history. But in the Journal of American History article, we read that the researchers “experimented with different wording for the prompt, substituting the words ‘significant’ and ‘important’ for ‘famous.’ Those substitutions yielded little difference in students’ responses.”
This is a serious finding of the study, but Wineburg/Monte-Sano have no interest in pursuing it. That fame and historical importance/influence mean the same thing to respondents might lead to sober reflections on celebrity and memory, but not here. Wineburg/Monte-Sano take the rankings at face value and highlight how they demonstrate how far America has come in recognizing women and African-Americans as historical players. They marvel at the top three on the list being black, though they wonder, with smooth superiority, “whether these four thousand Americans [the respondents] truly embrace diversity in their hearts.”
Indeed, the diversity point is the only kind of judgment they wish to make of the kids. They regret that “other struggles get left behind” (women’s movement, Cesar Chavez, Native Americans, the labor movement), but overall the historical accuracy or propriety of the list they set aside.
They do, however, have another judgment in mind, revealing several times a snide disdain of commentators and historians who criticize the young.
They eschew the “worriers’ call” and “prediction of impending doom.”
“Rather than convening a group of experts to rehearse the hoary ritual of ‘do you know what we know,’” they proclaim, “we instead allowed students to nominate the figures.”
And: “It has become a national pastime to give kids a test and then wag our fingers at their ignorance.”
And: “Such a convenient oversight [of not testing adults, too] permits each generation to marinate in the self-satisfaction that, back in their day, they knew their Andrew Johnson from their Lyndon Johnson.”
When historians ranked John Marshall 3rd on a list of influential Americans and only two of Wineburg/Monte-Sano’s 4,000 respondents mentioned him, they only note the “gaping differences between academic historians and the ordinary Americans.”
For them, it’s all relative. Things change. Values come and go. “As one set of myths goes backstage others jostle in the wings, waiting for their moment,” they explain. So, apart from the multiculturalist adjustments, let’s relax. Don’t fret at Marilyn coming out way ahead of Marshall.
So much for historical method. So much for historical truth.