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So Much For the Golden Age of Historical Knowledge

'Greatest Generation' Struggled With History, Too

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2004; Page A12

When the U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2001 nearly six out of 10 high school seniors lacked even a basic knowledge of the nation's history, Bruce Cole was indignant and concerned.

"A nation that does not know why it exists, or what it stands for, cannot be expected to long endure," said Cole, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It is a sentiment repeated often, part of a torrent of distress over the state of American history education. The 2001 report said most 12th-graders did not know that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution led to the war in Vietnam. Most eighth-graders did not know why the First Continental Congress met.

Yet, according to recent papers by two researchers, it turns out Americans have been deeply ignorant of their history for a very long time, while still creating the strongest, if not the brightest, country in the world.

A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."

"If anything," writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, "test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover -- and rediscover -- their 'shameful' ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.

"Appeals to it," the article continues, "are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a claim that can be anchored in the documentary record."

Richard J. Paxton, an assistant professor in the Educational Foundations Department of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a former Wineburg student, makes a similar point in the December issue of the Phi Delta Kappan. Frequent articles about historically challenged U.S. students, plus public displays of ignorance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "propagate the impression that today's students are educational midgets standing on the shoulders of giants," Paxton wrote. ". . . More important, they spread the false notion that the biggest problem facing history students today involves the retention of decontextualized historical facts."

The earliest evidence of historical cluelessness that either scholar could find was a study by J. Carleton Bell and David F. McCollum in the May 1917 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. Bell and McCollum tested 1,500 students in Texas and reported these percentages of correct answers on history questions: elementary school, 16 percent; high school, 33 percent; teachers college, 42 percent; and university, 49 percent.

It was particularly troubling that many of these sons and daughters of Texas could not state the significance of the year 1846, the beginning of the Mexican-American War, and had Sam Houston marching triumphantly into Mexico City rather than beating Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto 10 years before.

The next key survey cited in both the Wineburg and Paxton studies appeared in the New York Times on April 4, 1943, under the headline "Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen." Only 6 percent of the 7,000 freshmen could name the 13 original colonies. Only 13 percent identified James Madison as president during the War of 1812, and only 15 percent knew that William McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War.

Some commentators at the time blamed the results on then-controversial public school efforts to wrap history, geography, economics and civics into something called social studies.

A bicentennial survey in 1976, supervised by Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn and published in the New York Times, tested nearly 2,000 freshmen at 194 colleges. On average, the respondents got only 21 of 42 multiple-choice questions right, although Bailyn's standards appeared to be very high. Wineburg said the professor called it "absolutely shocking" that "more students believed that the Puritans guaranteed religious freedom (36 percent) than understood religious tolerance as the result of rival denominations seeking to cancel out each others' advantage (34 percent)."

Many surveys and tests in the generation since have produced similar results, with high school students getting about half of the questions right. Neither Wineburg nor Paxton says so, but Virginia recently reduced the passing score on its American history test to about 50 percent, and some other states have similar benchmarks.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress history tests in 1987, 1994 and 2001 came out about the same. Slightly less than half of high school students scored at what the test makers considered a basic knowledge of U.S. history in 2001. Younger students showed modest gains, with 67 percent of fourth-graders and 64 percent of eighth-graders scoring at at least the basic level.

When asked about the Wineburg and Paxton reports, Cole, the National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, said: "I am surprised that any professor would suggest that it doesn't matter whether students know American history."

Wineburg and Paxton said their goal is not to place less priority on historical knowledge, but rather to advocate changes in the way it is taught. Wineburg said the history standards that teachers must cover are often so detailed that the main points of the American story are lost, and few schools teach the subject well in any case. Teachers skip quickly from topic to topic, he wrote, while "the mind demands pattern and form, and both are built up slowly and require repeated passes, with each pass going deeper and probing further."

Paxton said he is also bothered by scholarly ignorance of the century-old American performance on such tests. "Historians who shout like censorious Chicken Littles that our nation is in jeopardy but do not bother to inspect the historical record are terribly poor role models," he wrote.