Don’t Know Much About History: Why History is American’s Worst Subject

Occasionally, some education topics hit a little too close to home for me. I recently watched a promo for an Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) Webinar held on July 6 titled, “The Nation’s Report Cards for U.S. History and Civics.” AEE President Bob Wise, waving an American flag and donning a feathery colonial tricorn hat, explained that U.S. history – not math, or science or reading – is the subject in which the smallest percentage of American 8th and 12th graders score at a proficient level or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

As a one-time high school history teacher, I understandably found this news disconcerting, to say the least. Wise pointed out NAEP’s latest results indicate only 17 percent of 8th graders and 12 percent of 12th graders scored at least proficient when it comes to U.S. history questions. He also reported a NAEP assessment of 4th graders showed fewer than 35 percent knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Wise, who is also a former West Virginia governor, quoted historian and author David McCullough in assessing the reasons why American school children know so little about our country’s history. In testimony before a Congressional committee, McCullough explained many history teachers did not major in the subject in college. (For the record, let me state I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in history. However, truth be told, that was such a long time ago that I had significantly less U.S. history to learn than today’s history majors.)

Wise said McCullough also blamed No Child Left Behind, which some contend places too much emphasis on math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects.

I would offer yet another theory why fewer than one in five students scores at a proficient level in history. As with any subject, I believe students understand best when the subject is taught in a manner that relates it to their lives. Science, math and reading typically engage students. Students tend to be active learners. However, too many history teachers have, - historically anyway, if you will pardon the pun – built their lessons around lectures, tossing about dates and historical names and places without any effort to connect the value of historical events to the lives of their students.

A key to enhancing student understanding of history should include a change in teaching pedagogies, using creative lesson plans that actively engage learners, place students in decision-making and problem-solving modes to help them understand why certain events occurred as they did and how the outcome might have changed our lives today if different decisions had been made through the course of history.

Wise implored, “We have to do a much better job of helping our students understand why the 4th of July is such an important day in our nation’s history. Let’s know who we are and why we became a democracy. Then, let’s make sure our students know how our democracy works and functions.”