To our founders, an understanding of U.S. history and government was essential for the success of American democracy. In the years since this original vision, alternative purposes for education have emerged such as career readiness. Even among those who agree on the importance of history instruction, there is division over questions of which history to teach and how to teach it.
In this paper, Anders Lewis and Sandra Stotsky tell the story of U.S. history instruction in Massachusetts since 1980. The authors conclude with two recommendations for its improvement. First, they propose that the Department of Education should suggest specific texts for students in grades 6-10 to prepare them for reading a particular seminal U.S. history text in grade 11 or 12. Second, they support reinstating the high school U.S. history test planned in 2009 for a high school diploma.
In May 2012, one of the Bay State’s most sought-after pollsters surveyed 500 parents, 150 teachers, and 25 legislators. A clear majority in each of the three categories supported restoring the passage of a U.S. history MCAS test as a graduation requirement. 97% of teachers, 84% of legislators, and 82% of parents also think that MA should focus more attention on educating students on U.S. history. 87% of MA teachers say there is a correlation between the subjects that are tested and those that are taught in our schools.
E.D. Hirsch, Professor of Literature at the University of Virginia and author of the New York Times bestselling book Cultural Literacy, narrates the U.S.’s long-term decline in knowledge. The saga begins in the 1930s classroom when teachers started to turn away from set curricula and towards a child-centered developmental mode where nothing was “set-out-to-learn.” Hirsch argues that in this process we have become complacent about education, and that nothing is more foreign to America’s origins and traditions than complacency. A core curriculum that provides a strong foundation of knowledge is not unthinkable. Instead it is imperative for our continued success.
Every new American must pass a citizenship test on U.S. history and civics, yet many American high school students would not be able to pass this same test. Robert Pondiscio, Gilbert T. Sewall, and Sandra Stotsky argue that this shameful irony is due to the shrinking amount of time devoted to history in curricula across America. To correct this problem they suggest the adoption of high standards such as those in Massachusetts and the institution of a U.S. history and civics test as a requirement for high school graduation.
To Wall Street Journal Editor David Feith, students’ poor understanding of U.S. history signals a crisis in citizenship. In response he has gathered insight from 20 leading thinkers such as Sandra Day O’Connor and Bob Graham on the causes and cures of current civic illiteracy. For these thinkers, a knowledge of the amazing achievements of America’s self-government creates a common culture, fosters political discourse, and enables active citizens.