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.

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.

``History is first a story,'' Ms. Ravitch says. ``If you can't tell it as a story, complete with heroes and devils, then you lose the drama. If you replace it with a dry social-science approach, then you lose the students.''

The number of history majors in college and the number of students taking history courses dropped sharply in the late 1970s and early '80s. Today, a student can receive a bachelor's degree from 72 percent of the nation's colleges and universities without studying any American history or literature.

Many high school students might argue that studying history is not important. How, they might ask, is knowing the causes of the Civil War relevant to living today?

``The defense of history has been incredibly poor in this country,'' Agresto maintains. ``If all you can say is that it's interesting and that you need it to get into college, then you have not defended it. We need to make people understand they won't know their way around this world unless they know history.''

``Without a knowledge of history,'' he continues, ``you have no idea who you are, or why you are, or how to criticize your government, unless you know why it's like it is. If you want to understand what is happening and to argue about it, you must understand what it was at the start.'' For example, how could a student understand why he is being bused across town to go to school if he's never heard of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, the Brown v. Board of Education Su preme Court decision, Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement?

Changing the situation won't be easy, many educators concede. Much of the problem lies in the lack of student motivation that has beset all of education. Rewriting textbooks to make them more accurate and interesting, and requiring more stringent credentials for history teachers, can be politically difficult.

Much of the change will have to come on a one-to-one basis, with a teacher adopting different techniques that stir his students to want to learn, educators predict.

``Teachers have got to find ways to personalize history so students remember it longer,'' says Clare Keller, who teaches history and secondary education at Iowa State University. ``Students should be asked to look at history as it affected their own hometowns, and then expand on that to understand what was happening in the nation.''

Mr. Keller says he likes to have students try to look at historical events through the eyes of someone who was there at the time. He has his students write journals as though they were personally wrestling with the events, and he even dresses up like George Washington to hold a press conference for his students.

Those are the kinds of approaches the NEH wants to stress, and it is offering to pay for their development through a new program it calls ``Understanding America.'' Agresto says the endowment is looking for proposals that range from television shows and films that depict historical events to development of new ways to teach history to ways to improve teacher training.

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