Opinion: K-12 Update

Historical Fiction

“What’s past is prologue.” These words, from William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, affirm that history sets the stage for what’s yet to come. The patterns of the past are, as the Bard wrote, inextricably intertwined with the future.

But what if we can’t recall the seminal events and dates of history? Of what use is the past in a society focused intensively on 21st century skills? Actually, history and our knowledge of it matter a great deal, according to Common Core, a new liberal arts advocacy group. In Common Core’s study, Still At Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now (.pdf), released last week, author Frederick Hess writes, “In profound and essential ways, our civic health and national cohesion depend on our ability to familiarize the rising generation with the touchstones of our shared history and culture.”

Unfortunately, our collective history is unfamiliar to many American high schoolers. Responses to Common Core’s questionnaire (.pdf), put to 1,200 17-year-olds, paint a startling portrait of teenage historical and literary ignorance. In numerous cases, adolescent recollections more closely resemble fiction than fact.

Consider some of the report’s findings. One-third of students did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion. Only 60 percent correctly identified when World War I took place. More than one-fourth of students thought Columbus sailed the ocean blue after 1750. And almost a quarter of teenagers didn’t know who Adolf Hitler was; 10 percent thought he was a “munitions manufacturer.”

Student responses also revealed wide gaps in literary knowledge. Just 38 percent knew Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales. Slightly more than half accurately identified the premise of George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Only 50 percent equated the Job of the Bible with patience in suffering.

There is a bit of good news. Ninety-seven percent of students knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the oratorical triumph, “I Have a Dream.” Eighty-two percent accurately linked President Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation. But many of these same students were still unaware of the historical and cultural contexts surrounding these events: almost six in 10 didn’t know when the Civil War took place, even though the Emancipation Proclamation (famously referenced by Dr. King at the beginning of his “Dream” speech) was issued in 1863 by Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War.

Why are students so ignorant of history and literature? Common Core trustees Diane Ravitch and Antonia Cortese suggest our testing “mania,” fueled by federal No Child Left Behind legislation has “narrowed the curriculum,” crowding out history and the arts in favor of tested subjects like reading and math. A report (.pdf) released two weeks ago by the Center on Education Policy affirms that since 2002, school districts have increased time spent on reading and math at the elementary level, leaving fewer hours for science, social studies, and art.

Clearly, what we test affects what we teach. But that’s not an argument for more tests; rather, we should test more efficiently. In North Carolina, that means doing away with state exams in favor of an independent, nationally normed achievement test covering multiple subjects. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen soon. The state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Testing and Accountability, while advocating fewer state tests in their final January 2008 report (.pdf), could not agree to implement a nationally normed referenced test.

We also need richer academic content. Educator E.D. Hirsch has promoted this message for years. In a Washington Post op-ed several weeks ago, Professor Hirsch said, our “how-to conception of reading has caused schools to spend a lot of unproductive time on trivial content…and less time on history, science and the arts.” Reading content ought to be steeped in historical or scientific subject matter. We should also encourage students to read great literature, savoring the timeless works of writing titans like Dickens, Melville, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Because when it comes to fiction, that’s the kind they ought to know.