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When it comes to knowledge of American history, we are a nation at risk

When it comes to knowledge of American history, we are a nation at risk
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Only one in three Americans is capable of passing the U.S. citizenship exam. That was the finding of a survey recently conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation of a representative sample of 1,000 Americans. Respondents were asked 20 multiple choice questions on American history, all questions that are found on the publicly available practice exam for the U.S. Citizenship Test.

This research could be lumped in with a multitude of previous studies that lament shortcomings in Americans’ knowledge and skills in a host of fields. But that would be a serious error because this finding is not about bashing our schools, our students, or our fellow citizens. The importance of this study is that the future of our nation is at stake. Knowledge of a nation’s history by its citizens is essential to preserving all democratic societies.

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Americans need to understand the past in order to make sense of a chaotic present and an inchoate future. History is both an anchor in a time when change assails us, like the present, and a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring. It offers the promise of providing a common bond among Americans when our divisions are profound and our differences threaten to overshadow our commonalities.

So what do we do when only 13 percent of Americans know when the U.S. Constitution was ratified? Or when six in 10 don’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II? Or when less than a quarter of Americans know why we fought the British during the Revolutionary War?

And at a time when so much of the nation is transfixed on the U.S. Supreme Court and who serves on it, what does it mean when 57 percent of Americans don’t know how many justices actually serve today? Imagine what they know, or don’t know, about early decisions such as Marbury v. Madison, of FDR’s attempt to pack the court, and of what it all means for our nation.

All told, only 36 percent of those surveyed were able to pass the citizenship exam. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed failed to score a 60 percent, answering at least eight of the 20 questions incorrectly. And for those under the age of 45, fewer than one in five, just 19 percent, passed the test.

Identifying our collective educational shortcomings is not an attempt to embarrass the American people or to insult our national intelligence. It is, though, clarion call for why we need to do better when it comes to the teaching, and learning, of American history.

For decades now, our public education systems have focused on the importance of teaching STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — skills to all of our students, believing such skills were essential for future career success and economic development. Concurrently, Congress and the White House have prioritized the teaching of reading and math, first with No Child Left Behind and now with ESSA.

Yes, such skills and knowledge are essential to the learners of today and tomorrow. But they shouldn’t be taught at the cost of a strong foundation in American history. Americans need both. The future of the nation depends both on a populace educated in 21st century skills and an understanding of the roots and responsibilities of our shared democratic society.

Every year around election time, well-meaning organizations and individuals publish pieces on the importance of an educated electorate. We wax eloquent on regarding the value of an engaged and informed citizenry and the impact an understanding of the issues and the facts to which those issues are anchored. Some even talk about the value of a generation of Americans who “think like historians,” knowing how to ask questions about the present and future rooted in the past, and who can marshal the data to answer those questions.

In the eyes of many, those educated citizens are the very voters who will save the nation and protect the republic that Benjamin Franklin and his fellow Founding Fathers entrusted us with centuries ago.

But this cannot and will not be accomplished through good intentions, flowery language, or shocking public poll results. The only way we can improve our collective knowledge of American history is by dramatically improving our collective teaching of American history.

Ultimately, we must look to our nation’s capital and state capitals across the country to prioritize history with the same moral imperative we have placed on math and science. Until then, we must turn to educators, to the not-for-profit community, to philanthropy, and to corporate America to take up the banner and make history engaging, interesting, and important to today’s learners.

In the coming months, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation will release a 50-state study of what the American people know when it comes to history, as well as how our states address the teaching of history in elementary and secondary schools. This will form the basis for an effort to work with organizations and educators across the country to transform how American history is taught and how that history is learned.

Too often, we address educational topics on Capitol Hill when they hit crisis mode, when we perceive that we are a “nation at risk.” Sadly, we have reached that point. Not only do we not know the basic facts and figures about our nation one would need to do well on Jeopardy, we lack the deep understanding of history and its importance to be the knowledgeable participants in the American citizenry so many seek.

Arthur Levine is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, which identifies and develops leaders and institutions to meet the nation’s critical challenges.