Commentary

What Are We Teaching Our Kids?

Can America’s schools teach history? The question ought to be ridiculous — of course they can. What do we pay them for? History is as essential as reading and writing to a republic of free citizens. America’s schools have always taught America’s history.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of evidence that our schools are doing a poor job of it. Results of the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 57 percent of high school seniors scored below the “basic” level of history achievement. And “basic” isn’t impressive. The test-makers believe that students should achieve the “proficient” level, but only 11 percent of seniors did.

So the schools can’t seem to teach the basics of American history.

But they can teach some things — when they want to.

For instance, the Washington Post recently surveyed 76 teenagers in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. It found that only one-third could name a general from World War II, and only half could name at least one battle. But two-thirds could describe how the Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps.

Tiffany Charles was typical. She got a B in history at her high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the nation’s highest-rated school systems. She wasn’t able to name a single general or battle. Nor did she know who was president during World War II, nor what year the war ended. She did, however, remember many details about the camps. “We talked a lot about those concentration camps,” she told Post reporter Jay Mathews.

The NAEP showed something similar. In its 1994 survey, it found that only 39 percent of fourth-graders knew who said, “This government cannot endure half slave and half free” (Abraham Lincoln). And only 41 percent knew that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America for religious freedom. But 69 percent knew that Susan B. Anthony was famous for helping women win the right to vote.

Only 47 percent of high school seniors knew that containing communism was the most important goal of U.S. foreign policy between 1945 and 1990. But nearly 70 percent knew that infectious diseases brought by European settlers were the major cause of death among American Indians in the 1600s. One might suspect that our teachers are more determined to teach feminist history and the sins of America and its founders than the basic facts of American history and American achievements.

The 2001 report avoided anything quite that controversial. It did find, though, that only 36 percent of seniors could identify the Progressive movement (which revolutionized American law and government around 1900), while 68 percent could identify the Harlem Renaissance (an African-American artistic and literary movement during the 1920s).

A republican form of government requires citizens who understand their country’s history and values. We can’t decide where America is going unless we know where it has come from. American voters need to understand why people came to America and why they launched a revolution. We need to know the values that our Founders proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and instituted in the Constitution. Individual liberty and limited, constitutional government are the fundamental values that have made our society prosperous and tolerant and welcoming to people from all over the world.

Our government has not always lived up to those values. The United States at its founding was marred by the cruel and tyrannical institution of slavery. Women were not treated as full human beings under the law. The government has fought unnecessary wars, kept blacks in a state of subjugation even after the abolition of slavery, and indeed put Japanese-Americans in internment camps after Pearl Harbor.

Students should learn about those things. But they need to learn them in the context of a free and successful society. Do the students who learn about the camps also study why millions of immigrants continue to flock to our shores? Do the teachers who make sure their students know how European diseases killed many Indians also teach them about the Bill of Rights and the threats that freedom has faced?

Students learn about the robber barons — ask any high school graduate, and that’s likely to be the only thing he or she remembers about the 50 years between the Civil War and World War I. But they should also learn about the dynamic American economy that has brought an unprecedented standard of living to almost 300 million people, and about how those “robber barons” drove down the prices of food, energy, and clothing to make them affordable to more people. The era of the robber barons was the era of the oil well, the railroad, the telephone, the phonograph, the copier, and the skyscraper.

Most Americans want their children to learn about American freedom and representative government. If the teachers in our public schools don’t want to teach those lessons, then parents should be free to put their children into schools that reflect their values — without having to pay twice.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of The Libertarian Reader (Free Press, 1997).