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Don't Know Much About -- History, Geography, or Civics

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In April 1943, as the United States prepared to invade Nazi dominated Europe and hopefully rebuild the continent on democratic foundations, the nation was shook, at least mildly, by a study that showed a tremendous "ignorance of U.S. History" by college freshman (Benjamin Fine, "Ignorance of U.S. History Shown By College Freshman," The New York Times, April 4, 1943, p. 1). A survey of 7,000 incoming students at 36 colleges and universities across the country exposed a "vast fund of misinformation on many basic facts." Adding to the national concern was that most of these students had studies either American history, government, or social studies while in high school. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the colleges and universities did not require a United States history class to earn an undergraduate degree. For a week, the issue made the front page of the New York Times and was even debated in the United States Senate. Then it quietly faded from public attention, until it reappeared in 1976, 1987, and 2002 when new test scores were released (Alan Singer, "Past as Prologue, History vs. Social Studies," Social Education, 68 (2), February 2004, pp. 158-160.).

People somehow thought that saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school and singing the National Anthem at baseball games were enough to promote patriotism and respect for democracy, that is until the next Cold War or War on Terror scare.

In recent weeks, ignorance of United States history and the functioning of the U.S. government made the front pages again when a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam showed that among other academic weaknesses, "Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights" and "only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches." Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who heads a group that promotes civics education, declared "Today's NAEP results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education."

In many ways today's crisis is of the government's making, both on the national and state levels. It is also a crisis precipitated by the actions of both political parties, the Bush Republican "No Child Left Behind" and the Obama Democrat "Race to the Top." Both mis-education strategies stress continuous testing in reading and math at the expense of all other subjects, including history, social studies, and civics. Students, teachers, and schools are all evaluated solely on these tests items. NO CHILD ON TOP / RACE TO THE BEHIND has transformed many of our schools, especially in inner-city communities, into cold, dry, boring test prep academies rather than places were children learn how to learn and prepare to become active citizens in a democratic society. According to a report by my colleague Andrea Libresco, after five years of No Child Left Behind 36 percent of the nation's school districts had cut class time for social studies to focus on math and reading test preparation.

In New York State, civics education has been undermined by the virtual abandonment of social studies below the high school level. Standardized state social studies and history assessments have already been canceled for the fifth and eighth grades and may become optional in high school. Unfortunately, as State Educational Commissioner David Steiner conceded at a conference at Hofstra University on April 15, "What is tested is taught."

These "reforms" will make civics education, history and geography at best haphazard learning in our schools. According to Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania, civic education is the most important subject talk in America schools and should have "moral primacy over other purposes of public education in a democratic society." Brian Dowd, social studies K-12 coordinator in Massapequa, NY and co-chair of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies fears that "the Board of Regents," by counting social studies again, "is about to put New York in 'moral danger.'" The council is now conducting a letter writing and email campaign to press the state to keep current assessments and re-institute the ones that were suspended.

In the 1980s, Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces had a less-than-hit song called "Down in Mississippi." It celebrated a state with some of the lowest economic and social indices in the country. My fear is that current national and state educational policies that stress reading and math test prep at the expense of everything else will not only undermine civic understanding, but leave us all "Down in Mississippi."

Another disturbing thought is that people in power in this country may not want a truly educated population. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, both President Obama and former President Bush called it an act of "justice." I asked an eleventh grade high school class in Uniondale, New York if they agreed and every student who spoke, and there were many, said "Yes." I then asked how we define "justice" in the United States. There was general agreement that the key component is due process of law with the right to a trial. My final question was, whether you agreed with the killing of Bin Laden or not, do you think it can correctly be described as "justice"? Students were now not so sure. For me as a social studies teacher, the most important part of civics education is promoting this kind of uncertainty.