Assessing Common Core’s History Doomsday Survey

I commented on this survey a few days ago.  In that post I called for some historical perspective that could help us better understand the supposed lack of historical awareness among teenagers.  Diane Ravitch – who serves as co-chair for Common Core – has an interesting article at HNN in which she compares their results with a survey she helped prepare back in 1986.  Ravitch admits that the surveys are "not strictly comparable":

Yet, compare them I did, and it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

I recommend reading the entire article as Ravitch offers thoughtful commentary on the state of history education today. 


Is This An Appropriate Use of WTC Steel?

The Navy recently christened a new ship which includes 7.5 tons of steel from the World Trade Center.  While I support a strong military I have trouble with the symbolism behind this project.  That steel has so much death already associated with it that I have difficulty imagining it being used to bring about  even more suffering, regardless of the reasons involved.  I know my cousin Alisha would be appalled by this decision.  Here is what a few people associated with the ceremony had to say:

"It resurrects the ashes, so to speak, to do great things for our
nation," said Bill Glenn, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman
Shipbuilding, the ship builder.

USS New York’s prospective commanding officer is Cmdr. F. Curtis
Jones, a native New Yorker. It is to be commissioned, essentially added
to the fleet, next year. It could be used as part of peaceful missions
or as part of war, said Adm. Gary Roughead, the Navy’s chief of

That it could be used in war did not bother Lee
Ielpi, president of the September 11th Families’ Association, whose
son, Jonathan, a firefighter, died in the attacks. The ship won’t be
used for war "unless you bother us," he said in an interview.

sending a message that we’re standing strong," he said, adding: "This
ship, as it cuts through the water, is going to send a ripple. That
ripple will say, ‘We cherish our freedom.’"

Rep. Vito Fossella,
R-N.Y., said Sept. 11 was a turning point in the nation, and will never
be forgotten because remnants of the disaster are part of the ship.

the USS New York has to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell,
PCO Jones and his crew … have my full support," he said to a standing

Why couldn’t the steel be used for one of the Navy’s hospital ships or another type of vessel that would be more clearly perceived as having "peaceful" intentions?  Please understand that I am not a pacifist.  I just wonder whether this is really an appropriate use of such emotionally-charged material.  What about preserving the steel for future memorials to the victims of 9-11 or even other catastrophic events?  It seems to me that there are more fitting ways to demonstrate to the world that, "We cherish our freedom."


Another Incoherent Anti-Gallagher Rant

It looks like Gary Gallagher is coming to replace James McPherson as Dimitri’s number one whipping boy.  Does anyone out there have any idea at all what point Dimitri is trying to make?  I assume this is somehow supposed to be interpreted as a contribution to Civil War historiography.  Dimitri could at least include a link to this supposed discussion between Simpson and Gallagher.  Very strange indeed.


Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army Soon To Be Published

Yesterday I received an advanced copy of Joseph T. Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (Free Press, 2008).  The publication date at Amazon is March 18.  There has been a buzz about this book for at least the last two years.  During that time Glatthaar has published a few snippets as articles and book chapters, but it is nice to finally have the finished product at hand.  It’s a thick book at just over 600 pages, including extensive notes.  The book is organized chronologically, but along the way the author addresses various subjects such as black Confederates, the home front, morale, and medical care.  Glatthaar describes his focus in the preface as a blend of top-down and bottom-up perspectives.  It’s hard to believe that this is the first book-length treatment of the Army of Northern Virginia since Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants.  If it does for the entire war what J. Tracy Power’s Lee’s Miserables did for the final year we are in for a real treat.  I am about twenty pages into it and enjoying it immensely.  Interestingly, Glatthaar’s tables – based on a sample size of 600 – shows that slave owners were overrepresented in Lee’s army.  Here is a bit more to wet your appetite:

On the “Volunteers of ’61’:

Among enlistees of 1861, half the men had no accumulated wealth, according to the 1860 census, yet the average personal wealth was $1,615, a considerable sum at the start of the war.  Very wealthy individuals more than compensated for their poorer comrades….Quite a number of soldiers had grown up in comfortable middle- and upper-class households and still resided with their parents or relatives….More reflective of the average soldier’s true financial status was a combination of the wealth of the individual soldier and, if he lived at home, his family.  By adding those two categories, the average total estate soared to $6,882, a figure that positioned these men at the edge of the wealthy class.  The median combined wealth climbed to $1,365, a figure that placed them comfortably in the middle class. (p. 19)

For those volunteers who still lived at home, if one combines their personal wealth with their family’s net worth, the picture appears very different.  What emerges from an examination of that combined wealth is a huge range among these men.  The ratio of soldiers and their families who had total assets under $300 was about one-third, the same as those who were worth more than $5,000, a truly substantial sum in 1860.  One in every five enlistees and their families had accumulated wealth that surpassed $10,000; one in five were worth nothing, too, Rich and poor shouldered arms in equal proportions in 1861, and the middle lot of them were certainly from solid, middle-class backgrounds. (p. 19)

So much for a Rich Man’s War – Poor Man’s Fight.

On Slavery

Among the enlistees in 1861, slightly more than one in ten owned slaves personally….Yet more than one in every four volunteers that first year lived with their parents who were slaveholders.  Combining those soldiers who owned slaves with those soldiers who lived with slaveowning family members, the proportion rose to 36 percent….Thus, volunteers in 1861 were 42 percent more likely to own slaves themselves or to live with family members who owned slaves than the general population. (p. 20)

The attachment to slavery, though, was even more powerful.  One in every ten volunteers in 1861 did not own slaves themselves but lived in households headed by a nonfamily members who did.  This figure, combined with the 36 percent who owned or whose family members owned slaves, indicated that almost one of every two 1861 recruits lived with slaveholders.  Nor did the direct exposure stop there.  Untold numbers of enlistees rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders.  In the final tabulation, the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery.  For slaveholder and nonslaveholders alike, slavery lay at the heart of the Confederate nation.  The fact that their paper notes frequently depicted scenes of slaves demonstrated the institution’s central role and symbolic value to the Confederacy….More than half the officers in 1861 owned slaves, and none of them lived with family members who were slaveholders. (p. 20)

I wonder what other myths will be demolished?

Meanwhile my cat Felix is chewing on a bound copy of my M.A. thesis.  “Stop that Felix, don’t you know that this is going to make for a lovely door stop at some point?”


Allen Guelzo on Jon Stewart Show

1 comment

Comparative History



“Leave Them Kids Alone”

Looks like we are once again on the ‘why don’t our teenagers know a damn thing about history’ bandwagon.  Seems like it was only yesterday that we learned from a poll in England that a significant number of students concluded that Winston Churchill was a fictional character.  What I find troubling is the lack of historical context as part of our evaluations of these polls.  We proceed as if we have left a golden age where America’s teens soaked up historical knowledge along with the understanding that it all contributed to the maintenance of democracy and their role in it.  Do teenagers today really understand less than say high schoolers in the 1950s?  How about teenagers in the 1920s or 1880s?  Does it even make sense to draw such comparisons?  From USA Today:

Among 1,200 students surveyed:

•43% knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.

•52% could identify the theme of 1984.

•51% knew that the controversy surrounding Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism.

In all, students earned a C in history and an F
in literature, though the survey suggests students do well on topics
schools cover. For instance, 88% knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor led
the USA into World War II, and 97% could identify Martin Luther King
Jr. as author of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

Fewer (77%) knew Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end slavery a century earlier.

This is the kind of feedback one typically finds in these surveys.  Rarely is there any discussion as to why these results matter.  Why does an understanding of the theme of 1984 matter or the connection between McCarthy and communism?  I listened to a number of interviews last night and they all followed the same script.  Supposed experts discussed the poll, but not one reflected on the significance of the results beyond the standard vague references that teenagers are preoccupied with x, y, and z or that our schools have failed them or that this constitutes a threat to our democracy.

Enough with the surveys.  How about focusing on the numbers of students across the country who take part in National History Day events or the number of students who are currently majoring in history in college.  I don’t believe the sky is falling and I am not concerned about these surveys.  Most of the adults that I know who are middle age and older are just as ignorant.   Why not focus on them and leave the kids alone.


Where is the Outrage?

LicenseFrom the USA Today:

Rep. Donald Brown, a Republican from the Panhandle, introduced HB 1007 last week. It directs state officials to develop and issue tags that "contain an emblem or logo of Florida’s historic Confederate flags and facsimiles of the buttons issued to Florida Confederate units."

The $25 surcharge for these "Confederate Heritage" tags would fund educational and historical programs offered by Sons of Confederate Veterans.  A spokesman for the group tells our corporate cousins at the Tallahassee Democrat that they have 30,000 people who are ready to buy the tags if they’re approved.

"We’ve done everything required of us," Bob Hurst tells the Democrat. "All we’re asking for is to be treated fairly and equally. There are 108 specialty tags now and six before the Legislature this year. I hope the governor and Legislature will play by the rules; if not, I think it speaks poorly of the Florida Legislature."

Just one question for Rep. Hurst.  Do any of the other 108 specialty tags include contested images akin to the Confederate battle flag?  Were any of those images carried in Florida streets as a symbol of "Massive Resistance" during the Civil Rights Movement?

What I find outrageous, however, is that the SCV supports this kind of program.  After all, aren’t these the very same people who constantly refer us to the flag’s sacred qualities which they believe demand our utmost respect.  And yet, they are willing to plaster the very same image on the back of a car just inches from its fuel exhaust.  What a bunch of hypocrites.

Click here for an earlier post on how Confederate enthusiasts show their respect for the flag.