Callista Gingrich: Learning History is a Civic Responsibility
New Hampshire Union Leader
December 1, 2015
New Hampshire voters are famous for taking seriously their first-in-the-nation primary, a tradition that gives them a leading role in American politics. As someone who had a front row seat to New Hampshire’s presidential nominating contest four years ago, I was impressed with the voters’ commitment to this civic responsibility. It was inspiring to watch citizens test candidates, meet many of them personally, and insist on leaders who listen to their concerns. New Hampshire sets a high bar for those who seek to lead our country — and rightly so.
This year, as the weather gets cold and the election season heats up in New Hampshire, voters should listen carefully for what the candidates have to say about one of the most important challenges facing our country — one that goes to the heart of the rights we exercise as citizens but which remains too rarely discussed: the task of teaching American history in our schools.
At first, this topic might seem somewhat less worrisome than other problems voters expect to have addressed. But in fact, if our students are failing to learn the basics about what it means to be American — which is a condition for good citizenship — it is a fundamental challenge from which many more problems will stem. Our consensus about who we are, our obligations to each other as Americans, and the ideals and values we uphold are all rooted in our understanding of American history.
Historically, an appreciation of the Constitution and its principles has fostered an informed patriotism that allowed Americans of all backgrounds, faiths and walks of life to trust in our system of government. We undermine the very basis of our democracy if we fail to teach students about the Founding Fathers, their plan for a constitutionally limited government, and their assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and “are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Yet these are exactly the lessons many of our schools are failing to teach.
Recent results of a Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress survey suggest how significant the challenge is. Today, 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.
Only one in three fourth-graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than half understand why George Washington was an important leader in American history. And most fourth-graders don’t know why the Pilgrims left England.
These are alarming findings and suggest that we’re letting our shared understanding of what it means to be American disappear.
New Hampshire voters should ask every candidate, from the school board to the presidency, to explain what they will do to make sure our students learn American history. Each of us has an obligation to help the next generation of Americans learn about our nation’s past. In fact, this may be as great of a civic responsibility as voting itself.
Of course, the effort to educate our young must begin by working to emphasize American history in our schools, since this is where most children form their ideas about our nation’s past. But if the numbers we see in test results tell us anything, it is that we can no longer trust American history education to our schools alone. Anyone concerned with good citizenship should take the time to pass on the stories about our country’s past to the young people in their lives.
It is in this spirit that I have written a series of bestselling children’s books to help young people learn American history with Ellis the Elephant. In this series, Ellis learns about American Exceptionalism, Colonial America, the American Revolution, westward expansion, and much more. In my latest book, Christmas in America, Ellis discovers the joy of Christmas and how this special holiday has been celebrated throughout our nation’s history.
Visits to historic sites like Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts or George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, are also wonderful ways to inspire a love for American history. And of course, interactive online courses, television programs like Liberty’s Kids, and educational games like Oregon Trail can teach important history lessons, too.
This winter, New Hampshire has an opportunity to lead the nation in a conversation about restoring American history education in our schools. The next time a candidate for public office interrupts your breakfast at the local diner, ask how he or she plans to help make sure our children learn what makes America such an exceptional nation. New Hampshire’s strong sense of civic responsibility and its special connection to American history make it the perfect place for our revolutionary spirit to flourish.