Alexander: The Importance Of American History

Friday, July 1, 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.


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