Independence Day 2013: Today, Celebrate Our History by Fighting Historical Ignorance


A week ago, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) released The Nation's Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012. These federally administered test results have monitored the academic performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students since the 1970s. The report, analyzing results for the 2011-2012 school year, included long-term trend assessments of reading and mathematics.

While there was much to celebrate in this year's report, the picture of student academic performance is incomplete — and that's unlikely to change any time soon. Due to the sequestration, the NAEP budget was cut by $6.8 million, so the executive committee of the National Assessment Governing Board voted to postpone the 4th and 12th grade tests in three subjects for 2014: civics, history, and geography. 

I find it ironic, especially today, that we can simultaneously tout the greatness of our democracy while disinvesting in the very core of citizenship. When the NAEP last included these subjects in their report, they found that the subject in which students perform the most poorly is U.S. history, with only 12% of students proficient in the area, and over one-third of high school seniors scored below a basic level of competence on the civics exam. And while some members of Congress decry the Senate Immigration Bill for its "pathway to citizenship," the U.S. Naturalization Test currently has a 97% overall pass rate among naturalized citizens, while most U.S. high school students fail it in research samplings. 

The push for standards-based education reform has devalued social studies in favor reading and mathematics, and it's done so at a great cost. Not only are U.S. students woefully historically-challenged, the information they receive from textbooks is largely out-of-touch with contemporary historical scholarship, oftentimes partial or even incorrect. And in the absence of an honest conversation about this country's past, we're having a highly polarized one about its present.

As we celebrate our nation's birthday and commemorate the Declaration of Independence, we are no doubt celebrating one of the many triumphs of our country. But we cannot forget that our history is not always so noble: It's haunted by Native American genocide, Japanese internment camps, transatlantic slavery and racial oppression, imperialist conquests, repression of women's and LGBT rights, environmental exploitation, and much more. These aren't mere relics of the past; they profoundly shape what we see (or don't see) in our present. The lack of a comprehensive understanding of our national history affects our ability to engage with our government, and more importantly, with each other. Historical illiteracy strikes at the very heart of citizenship, and we as a country can no longer afford its cost.

Philosopher George Santayana said it best: 

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."