Jacquelyn Dowd Hall: Do the Surveys Which Show Americans Are Ignorant About History Revealing?

Roundup: Talking About History

OAH President Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, in the OAH Newsletter (Feb. 2004):

In a recent article in the Phi Delta Kappan , education researcher Richard J. Paxton skewers the “pop quizzes” that periodically inspire a round of hand-wringing about “historical illiteracy” among pundits, parents, professors, and politicians alike. College seniors in a 2000 survey, for instance, scored an average of 53 percent on multiple-choice questions. These “dismal” results set off a flutter of lamentations about “collective amnesia” and “civic ignorance.” Doing what historians are supposed to do—bringing a historical perspective to bear—Paxton looks at such surveys over time. He finds that the United States has a long tradition of assessing students' knowledge of the past through “recall-on-demand” telephone surveys, the results of which have been remarkably consistent. From 1917 to the present, students have dredged up correct answers to approximately the same percentage of the questions put to them—and this was as true of the “Greatest Generation” that went on to win World War II as it is of the much larger and more diverse student body of today. This consistency, Paxton argues, reveals more about the surveys than it does about what students know: “If standardized tests do a poor job of capturing the full spectrum of student ability and knowledge, then what can be said of surveys in which a telephone rings and an interviewer quickly begins asking unexpected questions?” ( 3 )

Using such surveys as a starting point for debate diverts us from the real challenge at hand: how to use what students do know—the ideas and identities they glean from family stories, museums, historic sites, films, television and the like—to engage them in the life-changing process of learning to think historically ( 4 ). To meet that challenge we need to draw on the revolutions in historical knowledge that have taken place over the past forty years; on new developments in public history and history education research; and on the ideas and experience of precollegiate teachers.

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Doug Campbell - 3/10/2006

Ms. Hall, u da lady! There no probl;em w/history today. I no. My hischool history teachr coach Smith had us watch talk shows,& I learn much
In college I took on-line history course. Teacher was not there, but no problim. Had a discussshin sesshen and I learnd much from studemnts. Like president Kennedy killed by CIA. FBI Halibertin W Bush and military and space alein\s Haliobertin is run by aleins! Wow!!!!!
QWe had quizzes & these questions were on the tests 2. Dont tell me i dont no history I GOT AN A!
Peeple say that bad hisotry cuid hurt the USA. No way. Weve always bin strong I meen when the germins bomd perl harbir to start the veitinam wra, did president raygin quit???? No!!!! He poppd nuks on them at heroshima & nirobee (I dont no that name it has an n tho)