Today, May 30th, Americans observe Memorial Day. It is a day to honor those who have paid the ultimate price in battle for our nation. It is fitting and right that we honor those heroes on this day.
But do we remember them the other 364 days of the year? Do we understand what they fought for?
The surest way to preserve our heritage — and to honor our past — is to educate our children about American history. After all, as President Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to remain ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Research shows that too many Americans are ignorant when it comes to their history and heritage.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reviewed curricula at more than 750 colleges and universities across America for our What Will They Learn? project. We evaluated whether each school required all liberal arts students to study each of seven general education subjects: English composition, literature, foreign language, economics, mathematics, science, and American history or government. Of the schools we reviewed, 622 — over 80% of the schools surveyed — do not require a fundamental course in U.S. Government or U.S. History.
In a majority of states (26 and D.C.), not a single state-run public college or university that we surveyed requires U.S. history or government.
Nor is it the case that students already know their history. The 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicated that the majority of eight-graders could not explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And a survey commissioned by ACTA a few years ago found much the same when it came to college seniors.
Fewer than 40 percent of college seniors could identify the low point of American fortunes in the Revolutionary War (Valley Forge), and only 37 percent knew that the Battle of the Bulge was part of World War II.
A sad fact is that many schools say they technically require U.S. History, but allow students to get credit for narrow and trivial courses. Do we think that “Perspectives in North America Taiko” should really be students only college-level class in American history and culture—as it can be at Stanford? (Taiko is a kind of Japanese drum.) Or “The History of Rock and Roll” at Cal State-Monterey Bay? Those courses may entertain students, they may even teach them, but should they be the only exposure students have to American history in college?
It’s understandable that professors often teach their own research interests rather than survey courses that students need.
But it’s not understandable that the trustees, who are the financial and educational fiduciaries, allow this to continue at the expense of essential American history. Parents, citizens and taxpayers have entrusted, literally, the trustees to ensure that the education their schools provide is sound. Those trustees should review what graduates are expected to know and do when they graduate. And if they aren’t satisfied by what they find, the trustees should take steps to ensure that students are prepared for postgraduate success.
After all, isn’t educating the point of college?
So as you raise your flag on Memorial Day, take a minute to see if your alma mater expects students to learn American history. You can check at www.WhatWillTheyLearn.com.
And this morning, call or write the board of trustees to let them know what you think.
Michael Leo Pomeranz is the senior researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Contact Pomeranz at 202-467-0376, MPomeranz@goacta.org