Are Students *Still* Ignorant of the History of the Civil Rights Movement?

Birmingham 3

Back in 2011 I wrote a post titled “Are Students Ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement?” I linked to Sam Wineburg‘s criticism of a Southern Poverty Law Center study that concluded students are not familiar with the basic facts of the fight to end Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s.  Here is a taste of what Wineburg wrote in the LA Times in October 2011:

“Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated,” one headline announced. “Civil Rights Movement Education ‘Dismal’ in American Schools,” declared another.

The alarming headlines, which appeared in newspapers across the country, grew out of a report released three weeks ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” which claims that the civil rights movement is widely ignored in history classrooms. By not teaching it, the report claims, American education is “failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be agents of change.” The study included a report card for individual states, and California got slapped with a big fat F.

But is it true? Are today’s students really not learning about such an important part of U.S. history? The Southern Poverty Law Center has done groundbreaking work in combating racism and prejudice. But its new study simply doesn’t stand up.

For starters, the report did not base its conclusions on any direct testing of student knowledge. Not a single student, not a single teacher, not a single principal answered a single question about their knowledge for this report. The closest we get to a live child — and even this is a stretch — comes from Julian Bond, who wrote the report’s forward. Bond recounts that “some years ago” he gave a quiz to college students and found that none could identify George Wallace.

The report’s writers turned to a proven recipe in our crisis-addicted society. First, they gathered up standards documents from all 50 states laying out what students at each grade level should study; then they conducted a “content analysis” to determine what’s in these documents; next they landed a marquee figure to endorse the report; and finally, they invoked terms of impending doom and handed the final report to the PR department.

Had the report’s writers bothered to talk to real kids, they might have found something closer to what we found in a national survey of 2,000 high school students, reported in the March 2008 Journal of American History. We gave students a blank sheet and asked them to write down the names of figures from “Columbus to the present day” who are the “most famous Americans in history, not including presidents or first ladies.”

Surprisingly, teens rarely put down rock stars or sports idols for top picks. Instead, they listed legitimate historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Three names, however, dominated the lists, appearing more often than any other heroes in U.S. history. Each of these figures comes straight from the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. (appearing on 67% of all lists), Rosa Parks (60%) and Harriet Tubman (44%).

Are American students still ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement?  I have heard this over and over again from folks this week while I travel through the South as part of a Civil Rights bus tour.

If students today are ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I am not sure it is because the Movement is not covered adequately in history textbooks or state standards.  I am not familiar with every set of state history standards, but I would imagine that all of them, or nearly all of them, cover the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, there are some exceptions, especially in certain types of private institutions.  And yes, many textbooks do not cover the Movement to a degree of depth that will satisfy everyone.  But I wonder if the lack of knowledge about the Movement is representative of student ignorance in all areas of history.

Thoughts?