HISTORICAL ILLITERACY IN AMERICA

Prepared for presentation to the _________ County (GA) School Board. (2006)

INTRODUCTION (by Mr. _________, local attorney and school board member):

Our guest speaker this evening is Chuck Esposito, who describes himself as a Samuel Adams–style pyromaniac. As you may recall, Samuel Adams was the Revolutionary patriot who opined “...it does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds." Chuck is here today to try to start a particular brush fire in our minds. His topic is, “Historical Illiteracy in America.”
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Thank you Mr. _________, and Good evening Ladies & Gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to be with you today. [Announce JJ diagnosis.]

Mr. _________, told me that he emailed you a copy of my recent Letter To The Editor, so some of what I have to say today will sound familiar and I ask your indulgence.

Unlike those of you who, like my wife Brenda, can trace your American heritage back to the Revolutionary War, or beyond, I was born in the United States of Italian immigrant parents, who were part of the flood of adventurous Europeans who arrived at Ellis Island during the early 1900s, so my American heritage begins with me. I envy those of you who can trace your American lineage back two or three hundred years, or more, and I am grateful to your ancestors who helped secure the blessings of liberty which I, and all other Americans, enjoy today. Perhaps it is because I am a relatively new American, that I especially appreciate the sacrifices made by your ancestors, and why I think it is so important, particularly for young people, to understand that others had to struggle, suffer, and sometimes, to die, for the freedoms that today, too many of us seem to just take for granted. And for those of you who agree with me that history is important, we are in good company. A couple of thousand years ago, in the land of my ancestors, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the principal objective of history was to prevent virtuous actions from being forgotten, and to insure that evil words and deeds should be remembered.

More recently, many of America’s most distinguished historians and intellectuals have expressed alarm about the growing historical illiteracy of college and university graduates and the consequences for our nation. I would like to share with you some remarks made by two such scholars: David McCullough, historian and Pulitzer Prize winning writer; and Gordon Wood, Professor of History at Brown University.

According to McCullough, who has been talking and lecturing at colleges and universities continuously for over a quarter of a century, there’s no question whatsoever that the students in our institutions of higher learning have less grasp, less understanding, and less knowledge of American history than ever before. McCullough feels that we are “raising a generation of young Americans who are, to a very large degree, historically illiterate; and if our best and brightest are graduating without a grounding in the past, we are on our way to losing the understanding that makes us all feel part of a common undertaking, no matter how diverse our backgrounds.”

According to Professor Wood, we Americans have a special need to understand our history, for our history is what makes us a nation and gives us our sense of nationality. “A people like us, made up of every conceivable race, ethnicity, and religion in the world, can never be a nation in the usual sense of the term. Instead, we have only our history to hold us together. It’s our history, our heritage, that makes us a single people. Without some sense of history, the citizens of the US can scarcely long exist as a united people.”

Returning briefly to McCullough, here are a few more lines from him on why it is it important for young Americans to know their heritage:

“History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for. History is - or should be - the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country. At their core, the lessons of history are largely lessons in appreciation. Everything we have, all our great institutions, hospitals, universities, libraries, our cities, our laws, our music, art, poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work, provided the creative energy, provided the money, provided the belief.”


Finally, Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of history when he wrote, "History, by apprising [citizens] of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men."

In addition to individuals, there are a number of organizations concerned about historical illiteracy in America. One of the organizations most concerned, is ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit educational organization, founded in 1995 and dedicated to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.

According to a study commissioned by ACTA and conducted by the University of Connecticut, not a single one of America’s top 50 colleges and universities requires the study of American history of its graduates. And in a continuing decline, only 10% of these same colleges require any study of history at all, a drop from 22% just a few years earlier. Seniors from America’s elite colleges and universities are graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage and a profound historical illiteracy. Little more than half of college seniors knew general information about American democracy and the Constitution. Fewer than four in ten correctly identified the Battle of the Bulge as being fought in WWII; and 40% were unable to locate the American Civil War in the correct half-century. Given high-school level questions, 81% of the seniors would have received a D or F: They could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the US Constitution. 66% could not identify George Washington as the victorious general at Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution. 77% could not identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” And only 22% were able to identify “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address. Despite this lack of knowledge, ACTA found that students could graduate from every one of the top colleges without taking a single course in American history. And at 78% of the institutions, students were not required to take any history at all.

At the high school level, the National Assessment of Educational Progress project, also known as "the Nation's Report Card," operates under the US Department of Education, and is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. According to their latest assessment of high school seniors, 57% of them scored “below basic” levels. For example, almost one-third of them thought that either Germany or Japan was a US ally in WW II. More students performed “below basic” on the history test than any other subject, including math and science.

And of course, students who are historically illiterate tend to grow into adults who are historically illiterate. A nationwide survey commissioned by Columbia Law School revealed that an alarming number of voting age Americans have serious misconceptions about the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Almost a third of all Americans think that the President may legally suspend the Bill of Rights in wartime; and almost two-thirds think that Karl Marx’s communist dogma, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” either was, or may have been, included in the US Constitution.

As for me, I am sad and worried about this state of affairs. But according to David McCullough, the historian I quoted earlier, the fact that young Americans don’t know our history, is not just something we should be sad and worried about, we should be angry. We should be angry because they are being cheated and they are being handicapped, and our way of life could very well be in jeopardy because of it.

So, who is cheating our students and is anyone doing anything about it?

On the national level, the US Congress unanimously adopted a Concurrent Resolution declaring historical illiteracy as a serious national problem, and the President has issued a proclamation encouraging the teaching of American history and civics. But the truth is, teaching history is a local problem, not a national one, and it needs to be addressed on the local level. And at the local level, there is plenty of blame to go around. ACTA suggests the following:

#1) The GA General Assembly funds institutions of higher education and it is in a strong position to urge higher education reform. It could pass a resolution calling on college and university boards of trustees and state agencies responsible for higher education to strengthen American history requirements. The VA legislature has already done so.

#2) College and University Trustees are stewards of the financial and academic well-being of their institutions. Boards of trustees and state agencies with higher education oversight should take steps to insure that there is a strong core curriculum, with a broad-based rigorous course on American history required of all students. Students should be required to study the great civic documents of the nation, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist papers, and the Gettysburg Address. Trustees at the state and city universities of NY as well as three universities in VA, and the U of CO have adopted American history requirements for graduation or urged their faculty to do so; and Hillsdale College, a small but excellent liberal arts college in MI, requires all students to take a US Constitution course.

#3) Alumni and Donors should speak out for higher education standards, and should target gifts to outstanding programs and projects in American history.

#4) Students and families should look closely at college requirements and syllabi, and should select those institutions that have strong American history requirements and a structured curriculum that gives exposure to broad areas of knowledge.

#5) And last, the Governor, using his “bully-pulpit,” has an unmatched opportunity to draw attention to the problem of historical illiteracy. The Governor can also use his appointive powers to appoint individuals who are committed to restoring academic standards at the college and university level. Eighty-five percent of all college students now attend a public college or university, so public trustees are the key to changing public higher education. For these reasons, I decided to contact the Governor’s office.

What happened after that is summarized in a letter to the Editor which appeared in the NGN on November 24, 2004, and which I would like to read to you:


GOVERNOR’S OFFICE REJECTS PETITION

On the Fourth of July, more than 100 adults and a multitude of children attended the 20th annual Independence Day party hosted by my wife, Brenda, and me, at our home in Suches. Unlike some private 4th of July parties which focus merely on revelry, our parties have always included an emphasis on the true meaning of the occasion. We reflect not only on the Declaration of Independence, but also on the Constitution, and the ideal of liberty, the bedrock on which this republic was founded. “You have a republic,” Benjamin Franklin said, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, “if you can keep it.”

We remain the beneficiaries of the republic based on those remarkable documents, but we do so with special attention to Franklin’s admonition, since it is only through engaged and thoughtful civic participation that we “can keep it.” Knowledge of our republic’s origins, and of the principles and documents on which free government stands, are central to informed participation in civic life. We are not just the beneficiaries, we are the custodians of our great experiment in self-government and the vigorous civil society it engenders.

At this year’s Independence Day celebration, our guests added their signatures to a letter which I had written to Governor Perdue. The letter provided references to studies (and to a US Congress Concurrent Resolution, and to an initiative by the White House) demonstrating that many American college and university graduates suffer from a profound historical illiteracy that bodes ill for the future of our nation, and it concluded with a request to the Governor to issue a Proclamation expressing his concern for this serious problem, and recommending corrective steps to be taken by the higher education community, as well as parents. A draft Proclamation, patterned after the Congressional Resolution, was included.

After jousting with the Governor’s office for several months, I have finally accepted their rejection of my proposal. In my last conversation with them they informed me that it is their “usual practice” to reject petitions (regardless of merit) which are submitted by private citizens, unless they are submitted on behalf of an organization. If I had submitted a petition on behalf of an organization of Emu lovers, or of Tall Cedar aficionados, I would probably have been successful. (And before you laugh, be advised that the Governor has signed Proclamations for “Emu Week” and “Tall Cedar Week” as well as “Ukraine Independence Day”). And, while I am sure there is broad support for the Governor to acknowledge the importance of Ukraine Independence Day; I fail to see how that is more important than for the Governor to acknowledge that it is a problem when only a minority of college seniors can identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution, or George Washington as the victorious general at Yorktown; or can place the War Between The States in the correct half-century. Indeed, it is precisely because educators and public officials put more importance on topics such as “Emu Week” and “Tall Cedar Week,” and less importance on topics to qualify students for informed participation in civic life, that many of America’s most distinguished historians have expressed alarm about the growing historical illiteracy of college and university graduates and the consequences for the Nation. When the Governor refuses to sign a meritorious proclamation merely because it was submitted by an individual concerned citizen (and co-signed by an additional 100 individual concerned citizens), rather than by an organized group (such as Emu farmers), those of us concerned about our Nation’s future have even more reason to fear our ability to “keep” the republic which was created and entrusted to us by Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, George Washington, et al. God bless America, and God help us preserve it, despite the insouciance of some of our elected officials.

The letter was signed, by me.

When I learned that petitions to the governor submitted by organizations fare better than petitions submitted by individuals, I decided to approach a suitable organization to sponsor the petition. At that time my wife was pursuing membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), so I selected them, thinking that they would certainly be interested in promoting historical literacy. I was wrong. The DAR was not interested, and I, frustrated, and having other dragons to slay, put my effort on hold, and moved on.

That was in the year 2004, and since then my effort has remained pretty much dormant, so I feel obliged to tell you what rekindled my interest at this time.

IN the autumn of 2005, the University of Connecticut, which, as I mentioned earlier, had been commissioned by ACTA to do the original study on historical illiteracy, revisited the topic, this time with a different survey, commissioned by a different sponsor: ISI (the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization, founded in 1983, working, as they describe it, “to educate for liberty”). In September (2006) The results were published with the revealing title: The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions, and the title says it all.

Some findings:
- The average senior failed with a score of 53.2%.
- 55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end (28 percent even thought the Civil War battle at Gettysburg was the correct answer).

In 2007 ISI once again tested colleges students nationwide, and the results of this second survey were published with the informative title: Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions, and it corroborated the results of the first survey.
Some findings:
- College Seniors do not know the basic timeline of American history. Only 47.7% know that Fort Sumter came before Gettysburg and that Gettysburg came before Appomattox.

For their 2008 study on the kind of knowledge required for informed citizenship, ISI broadened the field beyond college students to include American adults (both private citizens and elected officials), ranging from those with no high school diplomas to those with advanced degrees. The results of this survey were published with the “déjà vu all over again” title of: Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions.

Here are some “no surprise” findings of the 2008 ISI survey:
- 71% of Americans failed the test, with an overall average score of 49%, or an “F.”
- Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system.
- Only 24% of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.
- Earning a college degree does little to increase knowledge of America’s history, key texts, and institutions. In fact, college educators themselves scored only 55%.
- Only 54% of college graduates can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system, in which all Americans participate
- Elected officials typically have less civic knowledge than the general public. On average, they score 44%, five percentage points lower than non-officeholders.
- 30% of elected officials do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.

So, there is still work to be done. Which brings me to my final point, and to the matter of why I am here today.

I am here to leave you with a suggestion.

I believe, that if my petition to the governor had been submitted by a school board, or a historical society, or the VFW, or the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or some community service organization, instead of by me, it would be on the books today. So my current interest is to find one or more such groups willing to sponsor or co-sponsor a submission of the petition. Accordingly, my suggestion is that (your organization) take on the responsibility of being the lead sponsor in what I hope will be a coalition of co-sponsors, of the petition. If you are interested, there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Under the heading of “Ain’t no tellin’ how much good you can do if you don’t care who gets credit,” I can provide you with a copy of my file on this effort, and all you have to do is replace my name with your name, retype a few pages on your letterhead, arrange for the signatures of any co-sponsors, and send it off to the governor. I am scheduled to make this presentation to a few more potential coalition organizations in the area, but since you are my first audience, I am suggesting that you take on the responsibility of being the lead sponsor. I’d like to have your answer within the next week, before I meet with the next group, so I know if I should invite them to be the lead sponsor, or a co-sponsor.

I hope you decide to take on this worthy project. And for the sake of all of us, and all the Americans who will come after us, I hope the governor accepts your submission and signs the proclamation which affirms that the problem of historical illiteracy must be addressed by the entire higher education community: boards of trustees, administrators, and state officials responsible for higher education; and, it must be addressed by parents, students, and history teachers and educators at all levels.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”

God Bless America, and God help us preserve it.

Thank you for your attention.

 
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