Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June 15, 2011: Jumping Into the History Pool

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Comedians had a good laugh and conservatives a big groan recently over former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's shaky memory of Paul Revere's ride.

But no one was laughing yesterday when the National Center for Education Statistics released its report card about history knowledge by American students. To paraphrase Sam Cooke in his song "Wonderful World," they really don't know much about history. At least they don't know enough to be successful in the workforce.

While the number of fourth and eighth-graders knowning basic history has increased since 1994 - thanks, most likely, to states such as Florida having certain requirements for particular histories at those grade levels - the number of students who are proficient in history is less than 25 percent and the number of students with an advanced knowledge of history hasn't budged very much from previous studies.

The history scores lag behind scores for other subjects, which sends the message that improvement comes for whatever is emphasized. Since the 1980s, emphasis has been put on students knowing math and science in order to compete on a global level. Therefore, those scores have been going up.

However, knowledge of history is just as important. For instance, in order to figure out how to deal with current economic problems, it's useful to understand that the 1890s brought similar issues to the United States in terms of what's known as a "transitioning economy."

A number of past political leaders - including former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham in Florida - have been actively campaigning for more and better history education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said the country must do better.

Indeed, President Barack Obama - who knows something about history, having made it - should label this as a major priority for America's schoolchildren.

For the future, this country needs to know about its past.

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