Making American History Come Alive
November 18, 2014
A video has been circulating on the internet in which a student at a large university asks her peers basic questions about American history. The results are quite distressing. To the question, “Who won the Civil War?” she receives such responses as “America?” Another student replies, “You mean the one in 1965?” Two of them wonder, “Who was even in it?” And worst of all, “What Civil War?”
The college students are equally confused when the interviewer asks, “What country did America gain its independence from?” But perhaps unsurprisingly, when asked, “What television show is Snookie on?” and “Whom is Brad Pitt married to?” every single student answers correctly.
Not long ago, most people would have thought it unlikely that students could go to college without knowing that there was a Civil War or understanding why we celebrate the Fourth of July. But sadly, these same interviews could be repeated on almost any college campus and reveal a similar ignorance about American history.
We know this because the vast majority of students today graduate from high school without understanding the very basics of our history. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history, according to the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. Amazingly, the longer students are in school, the less familiar with history they apparently become.
Those of us who care about passing on the lessons of our past to the next generation of Americans have only ourselves to blame if, from the very beginning, our children fail to learn the basics. For two generations now, we have done a poor job of teaching young people about our country’s past. We’ve been giving them textbooks full of politically correct history at a time when television and tablets are full of attention-grabbing (and not always enlightening) content.
We have to learn to tell the American story in the 21st century. And that’s a good thing, because it’s an incredible story to tell–full of courage, determination, and exploration.
Take for example the great expedition of Lewis and Clark. At a time when two out of every three Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery set out across an unknown continent to chart a route to the Pacific Ocean. They faced every challenge imaginable on their journey—hunger, illness, inclement weather, and dangerous animals.
Overcoming these obstacles and many more, the explorers became the first American citizens to reach the Continental Divide, traverse the Rocky Mountains, and reach the west coast. Over the next few decades, millions of Americans followed Lewis and Clark’s trail west to create better lives for themselves and their families on the new frontier.
Lewis and Clark’s journey is a wonderful story of danger and discovery that every American student should know. But in fact, Department of Education data show that a majority of fourth graders don’t know the purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition. 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.
With discouraging statistics like these, it’s more important now than ever to find creative ways to introduce young people to American history. In From Sea to Shining Sea, my new book for four to eight-year olds, 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. There are even some great apps available to help kids discover history right from their smartphones.
With a little creativity, the next generation of Americans can achieve the “informed patriotism,” or love of America grounded in historical knowledge, that President Reagan called for nearly 25 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with young people keeping up with the latest news about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. But it’s time for us to give young people the chance to enjoy the incredible stories of Lewis and Clark and of so many other American heroes as well.