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Don't Know Much About ...

May 16, 2002



Seems more people could be taking to heart Longfellow's phrase, "The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books." Recent studies show a serious lack of understanding among Americans about history, science, and foreign affairs.

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Take history. Fewer than 20 percent of high school seniors have a genuine grasp of American history, according to a US Education Department survey. Just 43 percent have a "basic" understanding of the nation's past. Less than half of the students could identify or explain the Bay of Pigs invasion, for example, or the Monroe Doctrine. And those figures are unchanged from a 1994 survey, although fourth- and fifth-graders did show some gains.

In science and technology, only 50 percent of adults know, for instance, that it takes the Earth one year to go around the sun, according to a National Science Foundation poll. Only a third could explain what it means to study something "scientifically."

In foreign affairs, an American Council on Education report shows less than 8 percent of college students are taking a foreign language class in any given semester. Less than 1 percent have spent time studying abroad.

No wonder education remains one of the most popular political issues, forcing more and more federal and state action to uplift local schools, set standards, and inject more money. Better training and high salaries for teachers would help, too.

The income gap between rich and poor can only grow, and it's economic competitiveness decline, if an ever-larger portion of students fall behind in basic education. And understanding history is essential (1) to the duties of citizenship, such as voting, and (2) to avoid having government influenced only by a select few.

Until the 1960s, civics education, which teaches the duties of citizenship, was a regular part of the high school curriculum. Today's college graduates probably have less civics knowledge than high school graduates of 50 years ago. About three-quarters of school-age Americans lack proficiency in civics, according to the Education Department survey.

The Bush administration plans to take advantage of the renewed spirit of patriotism after Sept. 11 with a federal program to revive civics education. The plan is to offer incentives to public schools to teach civics. A task force is working on the details.

It should be a welcome addition in schools where learning has become disconnected from citizenship.

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