Skip to main content
Ringing any bells? A dismal 12% of high school seniors have a good grasp of American history. Fewer than one in four attain the minimum basic standard, according to tests from the U.S. Department of Education.
East County Wednesday, Jun. 29, 2011 6 years ago

OUR VIEW: The crisis of our founding roots


Despite naysayers in some of the highest offices in the land, the story of America may be the most compelling national story ever told in the history of the world, the story of men who fought and died for a universal desire — freedom — and then embodied that desire in a set of guiding principles that continues to this day.

Those principles have created a bright beacon of hope to millions of people with that universal desire in their hearts — from every continent and nation they have come to build a better life here on the principle of freedom — and made the United States “a shining city on a hill,” as President Ronald Reagan so often called it, paraphrasing scripture.

Warts and all — and we’ve had a few humdingers, long corrected — this country remains to this day that global beacon of hope. People endanger themselves and their children to flee their country and come to America, even sneaking in illegally if need be just to get in. People voting with their lives is stronger evidence than any words that the bright shining hope of America continues.

But more and more Americans know less and less of that history, ignorant of the most basic elements. Sometimes it becomes apparent that we do not know where we are going as a country, that we seem adrift in murky waters, because too many Americans have forgotten from where we came.

National amnesia is a dangerous disease when it comes to a country that has been the bulwark against tyranny and oppression in the modern world.

National amnesia
But now it turns out that history is not being forgotten so much as it is not being taught. That seems to be the primary takeaway from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called “national report card” from the U.S. Department of Education.

The results should alarm every American who does know history and understands what is at stake if we forget.

The most recent test was on more than 30,000 students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades to determine their knowledge of U.S. history. They were categorized in three levels: basic, proficient and advanced. Overall, 20% of fourth-graders, 17% of eighth-graders and a frightening 12% of high school seniors were considered proficient in history — only the middle category.

Fewer than a quarter of high school seniors made it to the lowest level of basic. So somewhere between 75% to 88% of people eligible to vote in the 2012 election have no real historic context on which to base decisions — greatly increasing the possibility that we will be doomed to repeat history.

Here are some examples of the distressing ignorance from the NAEP:
• A majority of fourth-graders did not know why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure in U.S. history.

• Asked which country allied itself with North Korea against the United States during the Korean War — the Soviet Union, Japan, China or Vietnam — four out of five high school seniors did not know. Given China’s rise in the world, that tidbit could be useful someday. (It’s mathematically possible none of them actually knew the answer, because you could get that good of a score from all of them guessing.)

• A shocking 2% of high school seniors could correctly answer what Brown v. Board of Education was about. (Hint: We can’t have separate school systems by skin color.)

The ignorance of American history continues into higher learning for those who move on. A 2006 survey of 14,000 college students found more than half could not say in what century the first American colony at Jamestown was founded (let alone the critically important reasons for the founding); the reason NATO was organized (which would be great to know now that it is being used in Libya); or which document states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” (kind of foundational for who this country is.)

What to make of all this?

Clearly, our public school students do not know history — their history. But is it their fault? Because the next reasonable question is: Were they even taught that history?

Given the increasing criticisms of textbooks for their politically correct chicanery, perhaps we should realize that students cannot be reasonably expected to know what they were not taught.

California — which, due to its size, drives many textbook decisions — is considering a law that would require history textbooks to include the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Americans, along with people with disabilities.

This stream of political correctness is identified by one of America’s pre-eminent historians, David McCullough: “History is often taught in categories — women’s history, African American history, environmental history — so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.”

That’s critical because history is one long series of events, each leading to the next until this present moment. Seeing history through the lens of whatever groups have the most political influence at the moment, and erasing those who made many of the momentous decisions because they are out of favor, generates a view distorted to the point of untruthfulness.

America has not always existed. Its place in the world was purchased through blood, suffering, knowledge and faith. Too many Americans have been inculcated into a revisionist, politically corrected history that elevates currently favored aggrieved and whitewashes dead white males out of existence.

The American Dream
John Quincy Adams said, “Posterity: You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”

Are we? Surely the vast majority of students getting a high-school diploma have no clue who John Quincy Adams was — though they probably know plenty about Lady Gaga. So here is a short shot of historical truth to inoculate from the fatal venom of forgetting how we got here.

• America was built on the backs of colonists who wanted freedom to pursue their Christian faith without the persecution of state-run religious institutions in Europe. That started at Jamestown but included Plymouth and most other colonies. The impetus continued through to the Declaration of Independence and the acknowledgement therein of God. It was still strong into the 1950s when we officially put “In God We Trust” on our money.

• America was built from the minds and hearts of men who understood that life without liberty was not life worth living. Patrick Henry famously shouted, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” In the audience were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many others — some of whom died for our freedom.

• America was and is watered by the blood of men and women from Concord to Gettysburg to Belleau Wood to Normandy and Iwo Jima to Inchon to Khe Sanh to Kuwait to Iraq to Afghanistan. They have made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom and kept the shining city safe. Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” And that includes force of arms.

• America was built on free-trading markets and the backbone of capitalism. Although the term was not in use at the time, the concept fully was and is embodied in the emphasis on property rights, a lynchpin of capitalism. The Founding Fathers understood the importance of this and made allowances for free men and women to operate freely in the realm of business. This economic liberty is integral to who we are and is precisely how we came to be the wealthiest nation on Earth — and perhaps the lack of it will spell our downfall.

America did not just happen; its wealth has not always been; and there is no guarantee that it always will be.

Jefferson’s words never rang truer: “My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of and which no other people on Earth enjoy!”

That is America, the bright city on a hill, the beacon of liberty the world over.

Let us not allow ignorance to put out that that lamp. Without a free and prosperous shining America, the world will be a much, much darker place.

God bless America.

The power of words
Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
’Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


Related Stories