Don’t Know Much About History

David Barton recently appeared on the Glenn Beck radio program to talk about history education.  He argues that “the progressives” are to blame for lack of student knowledge in American history today.

Listen here:

When I heard Barton imply that history students prior to 1920 had a solid grasp of American history, I thought about the opening pages of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Wineburg writes:

Identify the source of the following statement: 

“Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”

The above characterization of high schools students historical knowledge comes from:

(a).  Ravitch and Finn’s report on the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in which they argued that students’ test scores place them “at risk of being gravely handicapped by…ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood.”

(b). The 1976 New York Times test of American youth, published under the banner “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.”

(c).  Reports on the 1942 New York Times history exam that prompted Allan Nevins to write that high school students are “all too ignorant of American history.”

(d).  None of the above

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.  This quotation comes from neither the 1987 a18c6-wineburgNational Assessment nor from any of the earlier reports.  To find its source we have to go back to 1917, long before television, the social studies lobby, the teaching of “thinking skills,” the breakup of the family, the growth of the Internet, or any of the other factors we use to explain low test scores.  Yet the conclusions of J. Carleton Bell and David McCollum, who in 1917 tested 668 Texas high school students and published their findings in the fledgling Journal of Educational Psychology, differ little from those of subsequent commentators.  Considering the vast differences between those who attended high school in 1917 and the near-universal enrollments of today, the stability of students’ ignorance is amazing.  The whole world has turned on its head, but one thing has stayed the same: Kids don’t know history.