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Bob Holland, Don Soifer: Social activists hijacked history in schools

A new scholarly report by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute raises the specter of the serious study of U.S. history being left in the dustbin of modern, revisionist American history.

Its authors, Robert Pondiscio, Gilbert Sewall, and Sandra Stotsky, believe it not at all alarmist to worry that civic and historical illiteracy now poses "a serious threat to our national survival."

In so many ways that they document, the education system is stacking the deck against the discipline of history. There is diminished classroom time, for starters, with language arts and math the two subjects that are tested extensively under federal and state mandates.

More substantively, history as well as civics have become instruments for the advancement of social-activist agendas centered on issues of race, gender, and class.

With the rise of so-called "critical pedagogy" as a means for excoriating virtually all aspects of America's founding, growth, and maturation, it is no wonder that almost one-third of Americans now believe the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil War came before the Declaration of Independence.

Those respondents to a nationwide survey done by the American Revolution Center in 2009 almost surely never had courses on this nation's Revolutionary heritage and the great principled debate that led to its becoming a Constitutional republic.

A long-festering and increasingly serious problem is what the Pioneer scholars term a "fragmented approach to the study of United States history {resulting} from using a social studies framework."

In that connection, a recent Lexington Institute study of the requirements for becoming a history teacher in all 50 states found that many states require candidates to earn credits and pass tests in social studies rather than showing they have mastered basic knowledge of U.S. history.

The subject of social studies draws from a disparate array of disciplines (such as anthropology, archeology, economics, geography, philosophy, political science, psychology, and religion).

Proponents argue this multi-disciplinary approach helps students learn how to live productively in society. However, reliance on a social-studies framework greatly weakens history's place in the curriculum and the historical knowledge of those entrusted to teach the subject.

Among findings of the Lexington study:

  • West Virginia obliges an aspiring history teacher to have a bachelor's degree, but beyond that requires no specific coursework in either history or social studies.
  • The state requires applicants to score at least 148 on the Praxis II social studies test, which is the lowest passing score among states using that national test.

  • Illinois' test for history teachers is tilted so heavily to "Social Science Foundations" as opposed to "Historical Concepts and World History" that it could be possible for a teacher candidate to answer zero substantive questions about U.S. history and still pass the overall test.
  • New Jersey offers history teachers certification as social-studies teachers, but stipulates a minimum of only one course in U.S. history. Incredibly, even that anemic requirement can be waived if certifiers approve an alternative course from outside a history department.
  • Even though the Educational Testing Service offers state certifiers a Praxis II test of historical knowledge, the vast majority of states instead are buying the Praxis II social studies test, only 15 to 20 percent of which is devoted to questions about history.
  • Passing scores on the Praxis tests for candidates hoping to teach history vary widely.  South Dakota, Tennessee, Mississippi, Colorado, and West Virginia are the states with the lowest passing scores.
  • The dominance of social studies is problematic, note the Pioneer scholars, because of the widespread use of faddish practices like activity- or project-based learning that are heavily promoted by the education schools.

    That mindset "often rejects the primacy of academic learning, now broadly applied to large bodies of hard knowledge including textual study of the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, and amendments."

    Reversing the nation's slide toward historical illiteracy will not be easy. Heightened public awareness of the problem could help.

    One means to that might entail administering to every candidate for a high-school diploma the same basic U.S. Citizenship Test of civic and historical knowledge that immigrants must pass to become citizens.

    It would speak volumes if our high school seniors knew less about their nation's heritage than the newest of our fellow citizens.

    Robert Holland and Don Soifer, policy analysts for the Lexington Institute, are authors of "Teaching History in Public Schools: An Analysis of State Requirements," available at www.lexingtoninstitute.org.


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