Harvey J. Kaye: Republicans Remain Poor at History – But So Do American Citizens

Roundup: Talking About History

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America: FDR, the Greatest Generation, and Us. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

In a recent article, New York Times writer Sam Dillon reports that the results of nationwide exams conducted as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that “American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject.” And there is, as Dillon notes, a developing consensus as to why this is so: “History advocates contend that students’ poor showing on the tests underlines neglect shown to the subject by federal and state policy makers, especially since the 2002 No Child Left Behind act began requiring schools to raise scores in math and reading but in no other subject. The federal accountability law, the advocates say, has given schools and teachers an incentive to spend less time on history and other subjects.”

That may well be so. But I want to suggest another possible cause for young people’s poor knowledge of American history: kids are simply emulating conservative celebrities. And the kids are no fools. They know from the news that if you want to get ahead, if you want to be taken seriously, if you want to be a contender, if you want to be a candidate for President of the United States — a rightwing candidate, that is — you can’t be good at history. Isn’t that the lesson of the past few weeks? Sarah Palin couldn’t explain what Paul Revere’s ride was all about. Bachmann didn’t know that Lexington and Concord — the first battles of the American Revolution — were fought in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire.

But while we can laugh all we want at Palin and Bachmann, the problem isn’t that they don’t have the facts straight about American history — it’s that too many of us don’t know enough about it. And our ignorance can be politically debilitating....

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