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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 249-252

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Public History

The Teaching of American History in a Time of National Crisis

J. Angus Johnston

In a speech she gave a few weeks after the September 11 attacks, Lynne Cheney offered her interpretation of their relevance to American educational policy. Responding to a claim that the attacks made an "awareness of other cultures" more necessary than ever before, Cheney, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the wife of the vice president, demurred. "If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis" in this "time of national crisis," she said, "it would be American history. We are not doing a very good job of teaching it now."

Cheney's assessment rested on the findings of a recent survey of historical knowledge among college seniors at elite universities, published the previous year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), whose national council Cheney chairs. The report's findings were indeed distressing—fewer than 20 percent of the students surveyed received grades higher than a "D" on the multiple-choice test, and the respondents' average score was just 53 percent.

The ACTA survey received tremendous attention upon its release. The New York Times said that it showed that "the nation is in desperate need of summer school," and the executive director of the Organization of American Historians cited it as evidence of "the growing historical illiteracy in our society." Senator Joe Lieberman said it demonstrated that "we are losing much of what it means to be an American ... the fundamental responsibilities we share as citizens in a free society," and [End Page 249] sponsored a congressional resolution calling on history teachers to "redouble their efforts ... to restore the vitality of America's civic memory."

By now the study's conclusions have taken on the status of received wisdom. The quiz appears on the Web sites of history departments and scholarly institutions, as well as that of at least one member of Congress. It is regularly dragged out by editorialists seeking to demonstrate, as the Atlantic recently put it, "how little Americans know about a great many matters, and how rapidly even that puddle of knowledge seems to be evaporating." In the wake of Cheney's comments, it seems likely that the study will receive continuing attention in the months to come. But attention isn't scrutiny, and a close examination of the quiz raises serious questions about whether it itself deserves a passing grade.

The ACTA quiz contains thirty-four questions and purports to "measure college seniors' knowledge of American history, government ... and famous quotations." But its conception of history is shockingly narrow. The test asks not a single question about economics, or literature, or the arts. It contains nothing about the frontier, or immigration, or modern political thought. There is no social history, no labor history, no cultural history. There's nothing on the history of social reform, except for Frederick Douglass and the Voting Rights Act. Nothing on the history of religion, except for the Scopes trial. Nothing on the history of science and technology, except for Sputnik. And nothing at all on women's history—the only women who appear in the quiz, Jane Roe and Eleanor Roosevelt, serve as incorrect answers to questions about the Marbury v. Madison decision and the League of Nations, respectively.

The survey also lacks chronological and thematic balance even within the topics it does cover. The students were asked five questions on the Civil War and Reconstruction—including one on the dates of the Lincoln presidency and another on the dates of the war itself—but not a single one about the Great Depression or the New Deal. Another five questions addressed international affairs during the 1940s and 1950s, but none dealt with domestic events in the same period. More than a third of the quiz is devoted to the Revolutionary War and the early republic, and the questions in that section are frequently trivial. Several involve the...


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pp. 249-252
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