Is Historical Knowledge Declining?

The recent announcement of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores is adding to the angst that “another generation of ignorant voters” is being raised. (In a classic appeal to conspiracy thinking, Rick Santorum blames the Left.)

Not everyone is buying the historical-hell-in-a-handbasket meme, though. Paul Burke points out several flaws in the exam, including the practice of not giving students credit for correct answers that the NAEP does not identify on its official list. NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a story that clearly shows that this idea of declining historical knowledge has been a persistent theme for decades.

It’s hard to fight the impression that historical knowledge in the United States is declining. Every semester for the past thirteen years, I’ve commiserated with colleagues about how little history our students know. How could they not know the difference between Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson, and who doesn’t know that the Monkees were the greatest rock band of the 1960s, if not ever?

I agree in part with colleagues who suggest that part of the problem with today’s historical knowledge is simply perception. Students today probably know as much history as they always have, the argument goes, but it’s different knowledge. Instead of learning about George Washington or Robert E. Lee, they are instead encountering Betty Friedan or Nat Turner.

Call me sacrilegious, but it doesn’t bother me too much if students can’t name all 44 presidents or even the original thirteen colonies. What bothers me most is that students often don’t know what to do with history. When asked to do something besides memorize, regurgitate, and forget facts, they appear lost. The look on their faces says it all: “Isn’t that all we do with history?” Contemplating constructing an argument using historical evidence perplexes and, I think, frustrates them.

Yet, that is the job of historians. Sure, we know historical facts, either because we’ve taught it or remember it from copious amounts of reading. Knowing those facts, even the important ones, is only the first step, however. If we don’t use them to construct arguments or provide interpretations, then we might as well circuit-ride the local bars and taverns, winning free beer and peanuts as we trample opponents in trivia contests. (How’s that for mixed metaphors?) We have to go beyond memorization, and we have to push students to do the same.

For more on this subject, see the recent AHA Today.

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2 Replies to “Is Historical Knowledge Declining?”

  1. You noted that what bothers you most is “that students often don’t know what to do with history.” Students appear lost “when asked to do something besides memorize, regurgitate, and forget facts.”
    Other historians have noticed something similar, and one attributes it to the decline of the “glory narrative” of American history, as the dominant American history narrative. No other dominant narrative has taken its place. This fall, when I teach 19th century America, I will experiment with the “make your own narrative” approach to history pedagogy.
    As the instructor, I will provide texts for them to read, define periods and themes of the century, but, they will know the final exam question up front, which will be to defend the narrative they developed over the course of the term.
    My goal and hope: My students will come up with their own narratives, and that they will all be different. I hope that they can defend their own narrative, but also hear each others, and explain and respect them, even as they prefer their own.
    Wish me luck!

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