History on shaky ground in high schools. National Endowment for Humanities hopes to improve teaching
``In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.'' That rhyme has been used by generations of schoolchildren to learn one of the most basic dates in American history: Columbus's discovery of the New World.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet a recent survey of high school seniors showed that one-third of them did not know Columbus sailed to America before 1750.
The survey, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), found that two-thirds of the 17-year-old students could not place the Civil War within the right half century; half could not say within 50 years when World War I was fought; and one-third didn't know that the Declaration of Independence was signed between 1750 and 1800.
Less than one-third could identify the Scopes trial from a list of four possible answers as the one concerning the teaching of evolution, even though that trial is the basis for the recent furor over teaching ``creationism'' in public schools. And only one-third knew what McCarthyism was.
What worries the endowment is that these students did not appear to have even a rudimentary knowledge of their national background and culture. As a result of these findings, the endowment is putting up money to develop new approaches to presenting American history and to bolster teacher training. The endowment wants to help reverse the impression these students had that, in the words of John Agresto, acting chairman of the NEH, ``the world [did not exist] before they were born.''
The endowment's findings are supported by educators interviewed for this article. They agreed that a high school graduate's knowledge of American history is poor. Whether it's any poorer than it has been in the past, however, is debatable, they feel, because a survey similar to the NEH's has not been done before.
``But if you extract what people ought to know about their history, then this is awful,'' says Diane Ravitch, a professor of history at Teachers College at Columbia University, who helped devise the test. ``We asked questions we thought everyone should know.''
History teachers give varied reasons for the abysmal results.
Some blame the national emphasis on science and math education over the last 25 years. They say this has drained money and course time away from the humanities.
``We can't compete with science and math, and that hurts,'' says Jamil Zainaldin, deputy director of the American Historical Society. He warns, ``In education reform, history might be left out again.''
Mr. Agresto disagrees with these history teachers, however. He contends that science and math are not sapping history. He says the villains are the ``life skill'' courses high schools have added.
``The high schools are teaching consumerism, photojournalism, weight-watching. The more people think that schools are for the propagation of social niceties, the more history and literature will suffer. Why take Roman history when you can take bachelor living?''
The field of history itself has been diluted. In the 1960s and '70s, history course material was often teamed with material from sociology, psychology, and economics. Some historians charge that students were presented with history, not as a continuum of events, but as unrelated topics. These students were never given a firm base of facts before they were taught cultural comparisons or issue-oriented courses, they charge.