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The End of History in America's Classrooms

“Don’t know much about history…”

8:31 AM, Oct 12, 2010 • By CHERYL MILLER
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Teachers could use that focus. Opponents like to argue that standardized testing produces narrow outcomes, but the current civics curriculum—to judge from the Farkas-Duffett survey—lacks definition. Given the chance to pick their teaching priorities, nearly half of the teachers think it’s important students “internalize core values like tolerance and equality.” Less than 40 percent chose “understand[ing] the key principles of American government” as their top priority.

Moreover, only 63 percent of the surveyed teachers (the majority of whom teach U.S. history) think it’s “absolutely essential” to teach students to be knowledgeable about America’s past. Given this historical apathy, it’s a small miracle that only 40 percent say their students haven’t carefully studied the nation’s keystone documents—the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

With less emphasis on core texts like the Constitution and the principles of American government, teachers, not surprisingly, report less confidence in what their students know.  Only 24 percent of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15 percent think that their students understand federalism and the separation of powers, and 11 percent believe their pupils know the basic precepts of the free market.

America’s public schools were once thought to provide the cornerstone for an informed citizenry—a citizenry made up multiple races and ethnic origins.  What made “e pluribus unum” a fact was a common understanding of what rights and responsibilities we had as citizens and the role the government played in providing sound and effective self-rule.  We are playing fast and loose with our future if we continue to downplay or simply ignore the role civic education plays in making citizens of us all. 

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