Understandably, the Heritage Foundation leans to the right (something of a rarity these days), but I'll stick to the facts of the article and draw my own conclusions.
The article begins:
In America, we celebrate democracy and are justifiably proud that this nation was founded on the idea that the people should rule.
That’s why it is so important that Americans be informed about their government. They are partakers in it. In fact, they control it...
...Unfortunately, we are not very well-informed.
I feel confident that my fourth graders could do a reasonable job on the test, and I have now worked up my own version to use in the classroom. I know they could effectively answer some of the questions better than the results of the Wilson survey indicate for the general public.
- Seventy-two percent of respondents either incorrectly identified or were unsure of which states were part of the 13 original states;
- Only 24 percent could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37 percent believing he invented the lightbulb;
- Only 24 percent knew the correct answer as to why the colonists fought the British;
- Twelve percent incorrectly thought WWII General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War; 6 percent thought he was a Vietnam War general; and
- While most knew the cause of the Cold War, 2 percent said climate change.
While it is important for states to set reasonable standards for public school classrooms, those standards are often misdirected to the wrong students or the wrong levels. More likely, the standards do not emphasize our nation's history as much as they could. With a little elbow grease, we could include more at all levels with extensive focus at particular points along the grade levels. Since states have emphasized literacy and mathematics (with a little science peppered in) on standardized tests, history and social studies is easily relegated to the closet. I've even heard of principals (not ours of course) who have demanded that their teachers do not teach social studies, but to use every possible minute to emphasize reading comprehension. Undoubtedly, reading comprehension is crucial, but for decades, I have voiced my concern that purpose for reading is also important. History is interesting to my students; there are days when they go home telling their parents everything I've taught them about it. Likewise, I almost always help them make connections between history and their own lives. How have we gotten to this point in current events and standards of living? They understand more by studying history and connecting the dots. When states do not recognize the importance of learning from history and civics, they run the risk of an ignorant citizenry!
Secondly, there are too many teachers who can only skim the surface of our history, forcing in a few boring facts on certain holidays and calling it good. Some of those time-worn facts are not even facts: Columbus discovered America, George Washington cut down his dad's cherry tree, etc. The reason might be that in our own teacher-prep and collegiate careers, history was absolutely not emphasized. In other words, while colleges of education have focused their attention on so-called STEM, literacy, math, and general methods for teaching, they have removed any emphasis from history (unless, I suppose, one happens to be a history major). At some point we have to talk about more than just reading comprehension of history texts to tick a box. At some point, we must offer teachers more content training! Until then, some kids coming through elementary school will only know that Johnny Appleseed planted apple seeds (Even then, they won't know that he was actually planting apples for the purpose of fermentation.).
Finally, many teachers will put history on the back burner because they didn't sign up to teach history (Actually, they did, but who's looking?). For many teachers at the elementary level, they dreamed of becoming teachers for many reasons outside of our current topic. For some reason, many fail to consider that they have the responsibility of fostering a responsible and reasonable, informed citizenry. They may not think much about teaching the branches of government and their checks and balances. They may not think about the importance of teaching voters to base their votes on which candidate has the best yard signs or slogans. Unfortunately, the emphasis in some classrooms can be more on the cuteness of the bulletin board, the silliest dress up days, or the latest magical software subscription than on the future of society.
Stepman puts it this way:
We don’t want to become trapped by the past, but we do want to learn from it in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and build a better future. As citizens, knowledge of the past and of civics is crucial. Lacking such knowledge is unhealthy for a free country, and even dangerous, given how bad political life can become.