“Don’t Know Much [Anything] About History”

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released its report on the state of history/civics education in American colleges.  The report titled "The Coming Crisis In Citizenship" presents a bleak picture of students attending a broad range of colleges and universities.  The study was done by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy and involved 14,000 randomly selected college freshman and seniors at 60 different colleges and universities.  The students were given 60 multiple choice questions which covered American history, government, America and the world, and the market economy.  Overall findings include the following:

  • Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen.
  • If the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors
    would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional
    grading scale.
  • Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college
    students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than
    when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed
    engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.

I was also interested to find that "prestige" makes no difference; students attending Ivy League school did just as poorly as those attending lower profile institutions.  The report continues:

Responses from college seniors to a selection of individual questions display
how little they actually know about basic historical facts, ideas, and concepts
germane to meaningful participation in American civic life.

  • Seniors lack basic knowledge of America’s history. More than half, 53.4
    percent, could not identify the correct century when the first American colony
    was established at Jamestown. And 55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as
    the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end (28 percent even
    thought the Civil War battle at Gettysburg the correct answer).
  • College seniors are also ignorant of America’s founding documents. Fewer
    than half, 47.9 percent, recognized that the line "We hold these truths to be
    self-evident, that all men are created equal," is from the Declaration of
    Independence. And an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly
    identify the source of the idea of "a wall of separation" between church and
    state.
  • More than half of college seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights
    explicitly prohibits the establishment of an official religion for the United
    States.
  • Nearly half of all college seniors, 49.4 percent, did not know that The
    Federalist Papers
    —foundational texts of America’s constitutional order—were
    written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Seniors
    actually scored lower than freshmen on this question by 5.7 percentage points,
    illustrating negative learning while at college.
  • More than 75 percent of college seniors could not identify that the purpose
    of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent foreign expansion in the Western
    Hemisphere.
  • Even with their country at war in Iraq, fewer than half of seniors, 45.2
    percent, could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s
    political support. In fact, 12.2 percent believed that Saddam Hussein found his
    most reliable supporters in the Communist Party. Almost 5.7 percent chose
    Israel.

I won’t bore you with the report’s recommendations, but here they are if interested.  So what are we to do about all of this?  Well, the short answer is that I have no idea.  Actually, we’ve heard it all before.  Now before you work yourself into a frenzy keep in mind that there has never been a golden age – at least not in the 20th century – when it could be argued that America’s youth was historically literate.  In 1917, 1,500 Texas teens performed just as poorly and tests conducted elsewhere in 1943, 1976, 1987, and 1994 resulted in similar scores.  Part of the problem perhaps can be traced to the fact that 80% of history teachers currently in the classroom did not study the subject in college.  I have no teacher training whatsoever and I am willing to admit that my skills as a teacher would be improved if I had more of a background in this area; however, I love the subject and I can get my students excited about studying the past.   I don’t see how you can do that without loving the experience of doing history regardless of how many teacher education classes you have under your belt. 

One more thought regarding this study.  I once read that even professional historians do poorly on these tests.  A group of historians from Stanford, Berkeley, and Harvard took a standardized and did worse than a group of AP History students.  Perhaps this is the result of very narrow research interests.  In the end I am not too concerned about these results.  They are nothing new and if I am reading the results correctly somewhere around 50% of college students do know something about American history. 

The Crater In The Classroom

As many of you know my Civil War elective has both a research and reading component.  In reference to the latter my students read a series of articles that address many of the important interpretive debates of recent years.  We’ve read articles by Gary Gallagher, James McPherson, Peter Carmichael, James Marten, David Blight, and Drew Faust.  A few weeks ago one of my students asked if we could read one of my publications.  I resisted at first, but a few of the other students chimed in in support of the request.  So today the class came prepared to discuss "On That Day You Consummated the Full Measure of Your Fame": Remembering the Battle of the Crater, 1864-1903" which appeared in the 2004 issue of the journal Southern Historian (pp. 18-39). 

I have to say that it felt just a little awkward at the beginning.  As they pulled out the article I noticed that a number of students had highlighted and/or written notes in the margins.  It was strange to see my own work dissected by my own students.  I always start by asking the class to explain the author’s thesis in the clearest terms.  As you can imagine it was a bit uncomfortable to ask, "What is Levin’s thesis?"  The article gave the class a clear sense of the broader project that I am close to finishing.  They asked about specific interpretations of evidence and clarification of other points.  As we discussed the main themes I showed some images of the Crater, Mahone, and the 1937 reenactment.  We had a nice discussion which revolved around the contrasting images of John Elder and Don Troiani and their depictions of black soldiers during the battle.  I spent a good chunk of time discussing Mahone’s political career and its effect on his war record.  I am willing to bet that the 11 students in this class will be the only students in the country to learn about the Readjusters.  All in all it was a fun class.

The semester is coming to an end in a few days and the class is finishing up research projects.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the students in this section and will miss them come January.

“Mr. Levin…I Don’t Get It…”

Today my AP class read and discussed the Gettysburg Address.  I gave them a little background about the battle and showed a couple photographs of the battlefield.  As I was describing the action – specifically the difficulties of attacking uphill – a bright and colorful female student stated the following in apparent frustration: "Mr. Levin, I’ve been to Gettysburg and I’ve walked the battlefield.  I don’t understand what the problem was…I mean that field is as flat as a pancake.  I don’t get it."  She was referring to the area specifically around the center of the battlefield.

Now that was a precious moment.

O.K. So It Was Slavery…But Where Does That Get You?

This week I started the Civil War with my AP classes.  I actually do not like teaching the Civil War to my AP classes because there is really no time to cover it thoroughly.  This brings me to a rant about the AP curriculum which I will put off for a later time. 

Today we looked at two primary sources that outline the respective goals of the United States and the Confederacy.  In reference to the former we read Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greely written in 1862 which emphasizes the goal of preserving the Union with slavery serving as a possible means to achieving that end.  I know there are other sources, but the letter is short and makes the point clearly.  Some of the students have difficulty moving beyond the overly simplistic picture of Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator" who set out from the beginning to end slavery. 

More interesting, however, is their reaction or should I say lack of reaction in coming to terms with what the Confederacy was fighting for.  We read through Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech" and I point out the changes made to the Confederate constitution that focus on slavery.  What is interesting to me is that my students have little difficulty connecting the Confederacy with slavery.  In fact, I had to point out the reasons why people continue to try to separate the Confederacy from slavery.  One student rightly pointed out that all of the events that the class covered since the Mexican-American War somehow revolved around the issue of slavery.  Once in awhile a student will note that most white Southerners did not own slaves or that their ancestor did not fight for slavery.  The proper reaction is to point out that individuals go off to war – if they are not drafted – for any number of reasons that may not correspond to why a country goes to war.  For example, I like to point out that plenty of Americans probably volunteered to go to Vietnam for reasons unrelated to the "Domino Theory."  This, of course does not imply that the United States did not go to war in Vietnam for just this reason. 

I sometimes have students who have picked up the traditional "Lost Cause" argument from a parent and I’ve learned to tread lightly here.  Push too hard and you run the risk of alienating the student.  On one occasion one of my students complained to his father that I was pushing a "Yankee" view of the war and the parent even called me to complain.  It was a very uncomfortable situation to say the least. Those incidents are an exception to the rule.  More often than not my students are entirely disinterested when it comes to this debate.  They study the material and the events that led to secession and war and see clearly the role that slavery played in all of it. 

That I don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing for the centrality of slavery at the beginning of the war makes it much easier to explain the war as a political and social revolution.  I want my students to appreciate the fact that even as late as 1860-61 it was not inevitable that slavery would be abolished.  The war did that and that it did raised important questions concerning the political and social order that emerged following its abolition and the end of the war.  It also helps me point out that Americans on both sides of the Potomac River were unprepared to deal with the questions that emerged as a result of slavery’s demise.  Revolutions rarely end without introducing new questions and challenges.   The Civil War was no exception to this rule.  This time around I am going to really challenge my students to see beyond that artificial distinction drawn between the chapter on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I hope to bring them to a point where they can acknowledge that the steps African Americans took to secure their freedom along with the violence of Reconstruction and the political debates among northern Republicans and southern Redeemers was an outgrowth of the consequences of emancipation. 

My Women’s History Course

Over the past few weeks I’ve been putting together my second-semester elective which is called "19th and 20th Century Women’s History."  This is my first time teaching the course and I have to admit to being just a little nervous.  I am new to the material and with 14 girls and no boys registered I can’t help but think that I am in for a few uncomfortable moments.  In my best moments I tend to think that my feelings of uneasiness are a positive sign of a willingness to take chances.  Here is my course description:

This course focuses on the history of women in the United States during the late 19th and 20th centuries. The major historical events involving women during this period are analyzed: the Suffrage movement, Progressivism, World War II, the 1960’s, and the Feminist Movement. Specific themes include women at work, abortion, women and politics, and women in the military. The course also includes a unit on the debates surrounding the social and political construction of gender. The class seeks to uncover the factors that affected women’s lives as well as the major changes in women’s history and the cause of those changes.

The class is organized as a research seminar and roundtable discussion. Students spend a significant amount of class time exploring a topic of their choice with the goal of producing an essay that utilizes a wide range of primary sources. Research skills that are emphasized include formulating a research question and thesis, collecting and organizing material, and producing critical/analytical writing. In addition, students are expected to come to class prepared to engage in discussion with their peers. Each student is responsible for leading the class discussion at least once during the semester. Ultimately, the goal of this course is to develop an appreciation for the process of doing history in a cooperative, inquisitive, and intellectual environment.

I’ve ordered two texts, including Through Women’s Eyes: An American History With Documents edited by Ellen C. DuBois and Lynn Dumenil and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  The former book is a text with primary sources and I hope to integrate Friedan and other secondary sources into the class during the semester.  We are going to start in the period following the Civil War since I want to spend as much time on more recent trends as possible.  The big question that I need to figure out is whether I want to stick to a strictly chronological approach or organize by themes.  I like the idea of organizing the class around themes.  For example, I just finished reading a chapter on "Work" in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women and thought that we could begin with it and then look at some of the history.  This might work well when we get to topics such as birth control and other issues related to sexual relations. 

I am also looking for quality movies that focus on gender and women’s history in the 20th century.  Overall this has been alot of fun organizing and I can’t wait to get started.