Flunking an exam with historical facts? Let’s teach why history really matters

Flunking an exam with historical facts? Let’s teach why history really matters
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A new survey reports that just one in three Americans would pass a citizenship test. Only 13 percent knew that the Constitution was ratified in 1788, not 1776. More than two-thirds were unsure of which states comprised the original 13 colonies. Less than a quarter could identify the reason we fought the British.  

Still, today’s test-takers can hold their heads high. They are no more no more ignorant than their grandparents. Americans always have flunked tests of historical facts.

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The first large-scale history exam was administered in 1917. High school students — the elite who made it that far in 1917 — yanked the Articles of Confederation from the 18th century and plunked them in the middle of the Confederacy. They confused Jefferson Davis with Thomas Jefferson, and stared with bafflement at 1846, the beginning of the war with Mexico. “Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history,” the testers hissed, “is not a record in which any high school can take great pride.”

In 1943, a test of 7,000 college students found them to be “all too ignorant of American history,” a finding recycled by the New York Times in 1976 in time to rain on the bicentennial parade: “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.” Subsequent tests, such as one given to students in 2000, showed scant improvement.

Why, then, do Americans of all ages and generations do so poorly recalling historical facts from memory? One reason people look dumb is that the tests are constructed to make them look so.

Consider the term “distractors” that testers use to label the incorrect answers on a multiple-choice exam. If distractors don’t carry their weight, they’re thrown out and new and improved ones are put in their place. Distraction is so baked into the testing culture that it leaches into the federal “gold standard” of assessment, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The 2010 exam asked middle-schoolers which country backed North Korea when it invaded the South: (a) the Soviet Union, (b) Japan, (c) China, or (d) Vietnam. Had students guessed, a quarter would have gotten it right. But they did worse than guessing: only 22 percent answered China. The most popular response, snaring 38 percent, was (a) the Soviet Union.

Might students’ answers have something to do with the fact that Stalin, not Mao, gave North Korea permission to attack the South, that “every MiG flown in North Korea between November 1950 and December 1951 had a Soviet pilot at the controls,” or that by the time an armistice was signed, over 70,000 Soviet pilots, technicians, and gunners had served the North Korean effort? Had testers really wanted to know what kids knew, they would have listed as options France or Holland — or even Barbados.

The president of Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which sponsored the latest survey, called the results not only an “embarrassment” but a threat to the maintenance of “a democratic society.” But it’s surveys such as this one — not the fact that Americans confuse 1776 with 1788 — that divert our attention from our gravest challenges and pose the real threat to democracy.

Today’s survey respondents came of age during decades of legislative gridlock, where the word “bipartisan” denoted weakness, and where norms that safeguarded American democracy for generations have broken down. According to the World Values Survey, among Americans born in the 1980s, 70 percent no longer believe it “essential” to live in a country that is governed democratically. One in six hold unabashedly anti-democratic views, believing that it would be “good” or “very good” for the army to rule. Twenty-five years ago, that number stood safely at one in 16.

If we really care about the relationship of historical knowledge to democracy, let’s leave distinguishing between 1776 and 1788 to Google and instead teach students about the history of poll taxes and the other tactics of voter suppression, or the history of gerrymandering and its acceleration in the past decade, or the antecedents of Citizens United, which date to late 19th century U.S. Supreme Court decisions that weakened the 14th and 15th Amendments and paved the way for Jim Crow.   

The survey firm hired by Woodrow Wilson festoons this sentence on its webpage: “If you’re just reaffirming the status quo, then you are missing the point.”

You can say that again.

Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and History at Stanford University. His latest book, “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone),” is published by the University of Chicago Press.