Alexander: The Importance Of American History

Friday, July 01, 2005 - by Sen. Lamar Alexander

This week we celebrate Independence Day, and the sad fact is that millions of young Americans don’t know much about why.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card,” fewer students have just a basic understanding of American history than have a basic understanding of any other subject which we test – including math, science and reading. When you look at the national report card, American history is our children’s worst subject.

Last week, I held a hearing to examine the American History Achievement Act—legislation I introduced in April with Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

This modest bill provides for improved testing of American history and civics so that we can determine where history is being taught well – and where it is being taught not so well – so that improvements can be made. We also know that when testing is focused on a specific subject, states and school districts are more likely to step up to the challenge and improve performance.

The American History Achievement Act gives the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) the authority to administer a ten state pilot study of the NAEP test in U.S. history in 2006. They already have that authority for reading, math, science and writing.

This pilot program should collect enough data to attain a state-by-state comparison of 8th and 12th grade students’ knowledge and understanding of U.S. History. That data will allow us to know which states are doing a better job of teaching American history and allow other states to model their programs on those that are working well. It will also put a spotlight on American history that should encourage states and school districts to improve their efforts at teaching the subject.

Teaching American history is a unique and special responsibility of our public schools.

I can remember a meeting of educators in Rochester a few years ago when I was president of the University of Tennessee. The then president of Notre Dame University, Monk Malloy, asked this question: “What is the rationale for the public school?” There was an unexpected silence around the room until Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, answered in this way: “The public school was created to teach immigrant children the three R’s and what it means to be an American with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents.”

From the founding of our country, we have always understood how important it is for citizens to understand the principles that unite us as a country. Other countries are united by their ethnicity. If you move to Japan for example, you can’t become Japanese. Americans, on the other hand, are united by a few things in which we believe. To become an American citizen, you subscribe to those principles. If there were no agreement on those principles, as Samuel Huntington has noted, we would be the United Nations instead of the United States of America. Still, many children are growing up as “civic illiterates,” not knowing the basic principles that unite us as a country.

However, as Al Shanker pointed out, we cannot overlook the special mission of our public schools: teaching our children what it means to be an American. U.S. history is the last great subject that we need to fully integrate into our public school curriculum.

And, according to recent poll results, that’s exactly what the American people – who pay the taxes – want. Hart-Teeter recently conducted a poll of 1,300 adults for the Educational Testing Service (ETS), where they asked what the principal goal of education ought to be. The top response was “producing literate, educated citizens who can participate in our democracy.” Twenty-six percent of respondents felt that should be our principal goal. “Teach basics: math, reading, writing” was selected by only 15 percent as the principal goal of education. You can’t be an educated participant in our democracy if you don’t know our history.

The American History Achievement Act is part of a broader effort to strengthen understanding of our nation’s history and shared values. Last year, Senator Kennedy and I joined together with other senators to pass the American History and Civics Education Act by a unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate, and it was signed into law by the president. The purpose of the bill was to create summer academies for outstanding teachers and students of American history and civics. Senator Charles Schumer of New York and I introduced a bill to codify the Oath of Allegiance which immigrants take when sworn in as new citizens of the United States. The Oath should be protected in law just as the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance are.

Our children are growing up ignorant of our nation’s history. Yet teaching our children what it means to be an American is one of the principal reasons we created the public school. It’s time to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American and why it is that we celebrate the Fourth of July.


Send Your Opinions To Chattanoogan.com

We welcome your opinions at Chattanoogan.com. Email to news@chattanoogan.com . We require your real first and last name and contact information. There is no word limit, but if your article is too long you may lose your reader. Please focus more on issues than personal attacks. (click for more)

Supporting Dr. Mary Headrick

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Mary Headrick two years ago when she first ran for Congress. I was convinced then and am even more convinced now that she is the best choice for the 3rd Congressional District. Dr. Headrick has degrees in math and computer science, which shows she has a brain and in medicine, which shows she has a heart. She is superbly qualified to serve our ... (click for more)

Architect/Contractor Selected By Erlanger For New Children's/Women's Hospital

HKS has been selected as the architect and McCarthy as the construction manager for a new Children’s and Women’s Hospital at the Erlanger campus on East Third Street. The Atlanta team competed against another Atlanta group for the major construction project. Erlanger officials announced Monday that $11.5 million is being set aside in a debt restructuring for the new $30 ... (click for more)

Red Bank Protestors Say Police Out Of Control

Regular city business was overshadowed at the Red Bank Commission meeting Tuesday night by citizens protesting recent police actions. Outside city hall people holding signs lined the sidewalk and, in the time set aside for residents of the city to speak, the ones that did expressed disapproval of the police procedures surrounding a traffic stop that ended in an alleged beating. ... (click for more)

Mihaescu, March Win Region 3-A/AA Cross Country Titles

The weather wasn't quite as nice as it was last week, but it was still sunny and warm on Tuesday afternoon for the Region 3-A/AA cross country championships, which were held on a flat course at Camp Jordan in East Ridge. Sequoyah senior Danielle March was the female winner as she toured the 5K course in 21 minutes, 46 seconds to win by almost a minute over KiAnna Queener, ... (click for more)

Boyd-Buchanan Defeats East Ridge 7-1 In Soccer Semi

The Boyd-Buchanan girls’ soccer team has already made history this season, but coach Todd Ledbetter’s Lady Bucs are hungry for more. After winning the school’s first district title last week, they moved a step closer to another championship with a Region 3-A/AA semifinal victory at home on Tuesday. Boyd-Buchanan, the 5-A/AA champion, defeated District 6 runner-up ... (click for more)