That’s the percentage of 12th graders proficient in U.S. history, according to a thorough report issued by the National Center for Education Statistics. Note that “proficient” is not the highest category–that would be “advanced.” “Proficient” refers to those who have merely attained a level of achievement appropriate to their grade level, in other words, a passing grade, but not necessarily a superior grade. This level is where all, or at least the vast majority, of students ought to be. But the actual percentage is…twelve.
Now, some might argue that the schools are more focused on teaching math, science, and reading, and that these subjects are more important than history. But in these other subjects, the level of proficiency is still unacceptably low: not much more than 30 percent. And in any event, it’s not true that history is unimportant. It is a necessary ingredient in the cultivation of civic virtue, a primary mission of schooling. Note carefully the words of Ronald Reagan who, in his farewell address, spoke eloquently on the importance of teaching U.S. history.
[A]re we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American.
We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who had fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of that — of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
Twenty-four years later we have apparently not heeded Reagan’s warning. And so, since we “forget what we did, we don’t know who we are.”
Another saying is that those who don’t know history are doomed to relive it. Based on the abject ignorance displayed by current students, goodness only knows what horrors of the past we might foolishly repeat.
And one final point; can the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, be proud of this statistic? Twelve. Percent. No, this can’t be something they want people to know about, and in fact, a search of the NEA’s website turns up nothing. There may be some institution in America today that is more pernicious than the NEA, but at the moment, nothing comes to mind.