We must improve history and civics education


Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He previously served as a volunteer faculty mentor for the Central Delaware YMCA Model UN program and has attended several Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge education seminars.

As we commemorate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, knowledge of the American Founding period is at an all-time low, according to results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While the 2022 testing of 15,800 students at 410 public and private schools across the United States also revealed declining math and reading scores, the lack of proficiency in history and civics is especially alarming.

Indeed, the aforementioned study found only 13% proficiency in history and 22% proficiency in civics among eighth graders tested. Related studies of history knowledge are similarly depressing: Four in 10 students believe that the Founding Fathers are better described as “villains” than “heroes,” according to a recent New York Post article.

Meanwhile, a 2019 Rand Corp. study of 223 teachers showed that less than half consider teaching about the American Founding and other eras essential.

Ironically, the causes of reduced student scores and teacher attitudes on the topic are related. Certainly, the pandemic led to interruption and changing of how instructors taught and students learned. But, unlike advances in STEM, there is no national mandate for social studies as there has been for math and reading. And with no set curriculum and limited instructional time comes inconsistent standards and lack of accountability. Even states such as Delaware, which does have a testing and assessment program for social studies, saw declining test results in the most recent cycle.

The societal consequences of an inadequately trained citizenry are many and menacing. The level of political participation by those 18 to 24 years old is already putrid as measured by election turnout. Along with being vulnerable to manipulated social media messaging, that group likewise has little trust in governmental institutions and is most pessimistic about the future. Perhaps most disturbing is the growing proportion of young Americans who eschew rules of civility and accept violence as a solution to conflict.

While there are diverse views on how to rectify the increasing ignorance of American history and civics, American government personnel, school officials and parents alike must first recognize the problem. Dorothea Wolfson, who directs the government program at Johns Hopkins University, puts it this way: “Something is off. Either we are teaching American history in a way that alienates students, or we aren’t teaching it much at all.” Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, referred to the low history and civics test scores as “an alarm bell, a call to do something different.” Anneke E. Green, who served in President George W. Bush’s speechwriting office, states that “we must redouble efforts to help young people understand our values and heritage.”

The keys to improvement in history education and civics training can be found both within the classroom and within American society itself.

First, we need more extensive and better training of teachers who aspire to instruct in the history and social studies fields. To offset shortages in that area, school districts need to provide incentives for training and also consider the value of retired personnel with experience, who may want to reenter the workforce to teach.

Second, to assist with material for instruction, schools should solicit outside help. Copies of the Declaration of Independence and/or the Constitution can be acquired from organizations such as the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, the Eisenhower Foundation, Hillsdale College, the CATO Institute and Turning Point USA. Further, partnerships with external organizations can augment understanding and appreciation of government and service. In Delaware and elsewhere, the YMCA runs a Youth in Government Program and a Model UN. The Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge offers training for teaching courses around Medal of Honor principles. The National Constitution Center and Khan Academy offer a free online course on the Constitution.

Third, just as we must hold schools accountable for improvement in history and civics, there will be augmented expectations on parents to instill values consonant with good citizenry.

Finally, those serving in government should serve as examples by practicing civility and by acknowledging the diversity of positions on issues. Too, media sources have an obligation to be cognizant of how stories may influence the public. Along these lines, CBS News recently announced an effort to practice “solutions journalism,” a positive orientation to coverage.

However it is done, the stakes are high, and the time is short. In a recent Time essay, Sal Khan and Jeffrey Rosen suggest that ensuring future civics competency lies in understanding the past: “As we approach America’s 250th birthday in 2026, we have the opportunity to reverse our civics spiral and revitalize knowledge of the ideals, rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that unite us.”

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