A Historical Perspective on Historical Perspective

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Via Andrew Sullivan, the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten provides some perspective on the latest dismal findings about American kids’ knowledge of American history:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976.

….The NAEP results through more than four decades have been consistently mediocre, which may prove nothing except, as Wineburg wrote in 2004, “our amnesia of past ignorance.”

My mother attended a highly-regarded Los Angeles public school in the 40s. She was an honor student who loaded up on every advanced class on offer. But she told me once that in her entire high school career she wasn’t required to write a single term paper. On the math front, her school not only didn’t offer calculus (nobody did in the 40s) but didn’t even offer what today we’d call pre-calculus. Advanced algebra and trig was as far as things went.

I don’t know how her history education fared compared to mine in the 70s — or to a contemporary high school student’s in the aughts. But I’m willing to bet it wasn’t any better. Kids may not know a ton of history today, but neither do adults. And why should they? They didn’t learn much history when they were in high school either. Nothing much has changed, and education most likely hasn’t gone to hell in a handbasket. That’s cheery news, isn’t it?

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