“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
If that famous saying by Spanishborn American author George Santayana is true — and I believe it is — this country is in an awful lot of trouble.
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, an education non-profit based in Patterson, N.J., gave a 20-question, multiple choice civics test to 41,000 U.S. residents in February. Vermont was the only state that scored more than 50 percent. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed in Vermont earned a score of 60 percent or higher.
Other states at the top behind Vermont were Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and Virginia. Louisiana, unfortunately, had the lowest score with only 27 percent able to pass the quiz. Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi were reported to be “barely higher than Louisiana.”
Spokesmen for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation said the vast majority of Americans couldn’t pass the test, but it wasn’t because their teachers failed them or because students are no longer required to study American history.
Arthur Levine, president of the foundation, said, “This is an issue of how we teach American history and whether today’s learners see relevance and are engaged in what and how history is taught.”
The foundation said there are two realities. First, passive instruction, reliance on textbooks and lectures, memorization of dates and names and broad shallow coverage represent poor practice. Second, best practice requires student engagement, application of problem solving and critical thinking skills, interactive methods, deep understanding of the subject and making the subject relevant to learning.
What that is saying is that students have to be deeply involved in the learning process. It’s not a oneway street where the teacher teaches and the students listen.
Making the subject relevant really hits home. As a teacher of American history, English and civics for over four years, I can’t tell you how many times students asked, “Why do I need to learn this.” If you can’t tell them and get them involved in what you are trying to teach, it won’t stay with them very long.
Students need to know that civics education is the way young people learn about the very basics of how their government works. They have to realize they will eventually have the power to vote that helps them shape the kind of government they want. A democratic society can only survive when its citizens are fully informed and active.
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation is launching a major national initiative to transform how American history is learned today. It is providing high school students with an interactive digital platform intended to make American history more engaging and exciting to all learners. This is considered vitally important for those who don’t see the importance history plays in the present and future.
A more dynamic way of teaching and learning history has 28 states using a 2013 program of the National Council for the Social Studies called the “College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.”
Something has to give if we are to cope with changes that have deeply divided this country. Only 27 percent of those under the age of 45 nationally can demonstrate a basic understanding of American history.
Here are five questions from the 20 included in the Woodrow Wilson test:
1) Who was president during the Great Depression and World War II? A) Franklin Roosevelt B) Woodrow Wilson C) Abraham Lincoln D) George W. Bush.
2) There were 13 original states. Please select the option that names 3 of them. A) Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine B) New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire C) New Hampshire, West Virginia, Virginia D) Rhode Island, Florida, Georgia.
3) Who did the United States fight in World War II? A) Japan, China, Vietnam B) Soviet Union, Germany, Italy C) Japan, Germany, Italy D) Austria-Hungary, Japan, Germany.
4) What is one right of freedom given by the First Amendment? A) Land ownership B) Speech C) Life D) Bear arms.
5) How many justices are on the U.S. Supreme Court? A) 12 B) 9 C) 10 D) 11.
I could give our readers the answers, but doing the research to find them may be one way to get people involved in learning more about the country in which we live.
If only 27 percent of those under the age of 45 can understand American history now, it will only get worse for future generations if we don’t change the way we teach.
Something tells me if we can get cell phones, laptops, computers, films and social media involved in teaching American history and civics, we may be on the right track. We should also think twice before removing more historical markers that prove this country has made its share of mistakes since the first colonists arrived here.