Don't Know Much about History-Never Did

Article excerpt

Surveys of students' knowledge of history are guaranteed to produce hand-wringing and accusations of appalling ignorance. Mr. Paxton challenges both the validity of such surveys and the assumption that today's students know far less than those of previous generations.

Children nowadays love luxury, have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for their elders. -- Socrates

COLUMNIST David Broder ranted about "historical illiteracy." A resolution co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) declared that the next generation is "in danger of losing America's civic memory." A headline published by the CATO Institute trumpeted, "Civic Ignorance Threatens American Liberty."1 Grave charges. Are they true?

This round of educational allegation American-style was ignited by a survey of 556 college seniors that was released during the summer of 2000.2 In a telephone interview, the students were asked 34 multiple- choice questions about United States history, government, popular culture, and famous quotations. The average score of these young people was 53%.

The "dismal" results (this highly charged adjective is brought to you courtesy of a story on the Education World website3) were fodder for a news cycle or two. The conclusions of opinion makers ranged from the usual bashing of teachers and schools to the supercilious fogyisms young people have endured at least since the days of Socrates. Let's face it: mocking youthful ignorance rarely fails to satisfy. That said, those who draw alarmist conclusions from the recent spate of drop-from- the-sky history surveys seem to have forgotten one thing: history.

Shorn of historical perspective, the results certainly seem dreadful. But are they really that bad? What does dreadful mean in this context? Were the results markedly worse than those of past surveys? How does modern students' knowledge of history stack up next to that of generations past? For that matter, how do the results of history surveys compare to those of surveys of other school subjects? These are relevant questions for the historian. But apparently they don't occur to those who ply their trade as part-time critics of education. A search of their critiques reveals a sharp focus on the here and now, but hardly a mention of the historical record that could bring depth and breadth to the discussion.

My purpose here is to add context to these periodic (if flawed) gauges of students' historical knowledge and to provide an alternative interpretation of the apparently anemic results. My focus is not on history tests, because surveys and tests are two different beasts.4 A test is an exercise in educational measurement that students prepare for by studying both individually and in groups. While the questions themselves are typically unknown to the test-takers, the general content of the test is well known. Time to prepare and test-prep materials are often available. Surveys, on the other hand, come without warning. These days, they frequently take the form of a telephone interview. In the account that follows, I make no claim of having examined every history survey ever given in the United States. Rather, I offer a cross-section of survey results going back almost 90 years.

A Brief Survey of History Surveys

In the United States, there is a long tradition of assessing students' knowledge of history by administering recall-on-demand surveys. Whether this is a reasonable method of measuring students' knowledge of the past is a topic for another article. But what is apparent from the historical record is that, when it comes to history surveys of students in the United States, the results have been remarkably consistent.

Comparing surveys done over the course of almost a century is not a straightforward task. Different surveys ask different questions and even different kinds of questions (multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, identify names/terms, etc. …