An Urgent Need to Grow Historical Literacy
November 13, 2014
Last week, millions of Americans participated in Election Day, gathering to cast votes that will help decide the future of our country.
The crowds at polling places on Election Day are often an inspiring sight, as people of all backgrounds line up to take part in this important civic act. This year’s results remind us that voting is a right that really does matter.
Today, anyone who’s a citizen of the United States is allowed to vote. While the memory of this week’s midterm elections is still fresh in our minds, it’s worth pointing out that this November also marks the anniversary of another inspiring vote in American history — one which was significant as much for who was voting as for what they were voting on.
In November 1805, the historic Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the Continental Divide and traversed the Rocky Mountains. The Corps of Discovery, as the group was known, was composed of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and a few dozen Army men — along with a young slave named York and an American Indian woman named Sacagawea (accompanied by her husband and infant son).
Before beginning the dangerous journey back east, the expedition confronted the question of where to establish its winter camp. The Corps decided to put the matter to a vote and extended the privilege to all members, including Sacagawea and York. It was a remarkable event — likely the first time in American history that both a woman and a slave were allowed to vote.
This moment, which I recount in my new book, “From Sea To Shining Sea” (for children ages 4-8), is one of the many important stories in American history that help us understand who we are as a nation. It would take many more decades and even a civil war before all Americans would win the right to vote, but this moment was a sign of the egalitarian spirit that ultimately secured that right for everyone.
These are the lessons we should be passing on to the next generation of Americans. Unfortunately, we have been doing a poor job of helping young people appreciate the important stories of our past.
Indeed, for two generations now, we have failed to teach American history in our schools, and many students struggle with the very basics as a result. Today, just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of 12th-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history, according to the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.
A majority of fourth-graders don’t know the purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Department of Education data show. Most fourth-graders can’t say why the pioneers moved west. And two-thirds don’t understand that westward migration resulted in new states being added to the union.
We must do a better job. If children fail to learn American history, they cannot possibly understand the rights and values that make America a great country today.
That’s why it’s more important now than ever to find creative ways to introduce young people to American history. In “From Sea to Shining Sea,” Ellis the Elephant joins the Lewis and Clark expedition as they venture west into unknown territory. Ellis helps children see that courage matters, having big dreams matters, and patriotism matters.
There are many other ways to help inspire a love for American history. Our country is full of wonderful historical sites and museums, from Mount Vernon and Monticello in the East to Lewis and Clark’s Pacific campsites in the West.
When we emerge from the voting booth on Election Day, we reaffirm our basic right as Americans. In an important way, we are also reaffirming what it actually means to be American. An appreciation of American history will ensure that our young people continue to value and uphold this basic right.