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What Do We Want Kids to Know About History?

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The recently released findings of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress provided another opportunity for the usual hand-wringing about how little American kids know about American history these days. An Inquirer article reported that only 13 percent of the high school seniors who took the test "showed a solid grasp of the subject."

Sounds dismal. But before we give up on this generation, we should ask ourselves a few questions.

First, what constitutes "a solid grasp of the subject"? A half-century ago, quite a few American schoolchildren could recite the Gettysburg Address by heart, list all of the presidents, and throw in the state capitals for good measure. Today's students would likely fail those tests.

On the other hand, though, almost none of the students of the 1960s were familiar with the early family-planning activist Margaret Sanger, the American Indian Ghost Dancers, or Frederick Douglass' autobiography. So did they have a solid grasp of the subject?

That students today are weaker on the details of the standard, presidents-and-wars version of American history makes sense given the broadening of the curriculum. Our courses now include more of the history of African Americans, women, the working class, and socialists, among others. The number of school days has not increased over the last 50 years, but the amount of historical material considered worth covering has.

Which leads to a second question: What's on these tests? Of the nine samples that appeared in a New York Times article, every single one had to do with political history.

According to the author, less than a third of the students who took the test knew that "in some regions many people did not support the War of 1812." Should we be concerned about that?

The War of 1812 was a comedy of errors from the beginning. New Englanders were so unhappy with it that they made noises about secession. Its most famous battle, New Orleans, was fought after the peace treaty was signed. And it dragged on until early 1815.

If the War of 1812 must appear on the test, couldn't the question about it be more engaging? How about asking students to come up with a better name for the war? That would give them a chance to think creatively and defend their reasoning. They might even remember such an exercise.

The assessment also raises broader questions: For example, does it still make sense to separate high school history courses and tests by country and region?

Not too long ago, high school students took Western-civilization courses to learn how the Greeks and Romans influenced the development of European societies. They took European history to set the stage for settlement of the New World. And American history was presented as, more or less, the grand finale to the two millennia that preceded it.

All nations use their histories to encourage national identity, but the current trend toward a more global approach to history education should be encouraged, particularly given the likelihood that the United States will no longer be number one by mid-century.

Knowing the details of Shays' Rebellion, in post-revolutionary Massachusetts -- another example from the national assessment - may be less useful than learning how historians define rebellion and discussing how a rebellion becomes a revolution. Arab Spring anyone?

And while we're reworking our curricula, we could also reassure our fellow citizens that things are rarely as bad as they seem -- including the state of students' historical knowledge.

Among the best answers to the question, why study history, is -- to gain a more clear-eyed, less alarmist view of the present. Any good history course should make that point.