The New York Times surveyed 7,000 college freshmen on their knowledge of history and geography. They did not know that much:
The students have but a faint idea of the geographical formation of this country. They place Portland, Ore on the Mississippi River, and St. Louis on the Atlantic Ocean.
Their history knowledge was no better, as educators lamented in the article: “Why are names such as Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Jackson, [and] Hamilton almost unknown?”
Clearly, the Times intoned, the educational system was in crisis and Things Needed To Be Done. Congressional hearings! Subcommittees! More standardized tests! Answering the most important question of all: “What do students learn in school, anyhow?”
Given the existential threat threatening the United States, how, the Times said, could we not ensure our students were well-educated?
It is felt at this time, with the United States fighting for the right to continue its democratic way of life, the youth of the land should know the origin and background that have made this nation what it is today…One conclusion is obvious: the study of United States history in our schools can no longer be neglected.
The article date was April 11, 1943. America was in the middle of World War II, and, as Tom Brokaw put it:
It was a critical time in the shaping of this nation and the world, equal to the revolution of 1776 and the perils of the Civil War. Once again the American people understood the magnitude of the challenge, the importance of an unparalleled national commitment, and, most of all, the certainty that only one resolution was acceptable. The nation turned to its young to carry the heaviest burden, to fight in enemy territory and to keep the home front secure and productive. These young men and women were eager for the assignment. They understood what was required of them, and they willingly volunteered for their duty.
This is not to make fun of that generation or (especially) those soldiers, even if they may have thought they were sailing to England from St. Louis. It is, instead, to point out that Americans are particularly prone to panic about their educational system, to believe that it is failing, in decline, and about to collapse. That tendency is present now, and was present then. That doesn’t mean that our educational system can’t improve, isn’t riddled with flaws, and couldn’t use changes. But it does mean that we shouldn’t let panic substitute for analysis, and partisanship substitute for reason.