Who, When, Why?

BACK in 1943, a New York Times survey found that a shocking one-quarter of entering college freshmen didn't know Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War. More than 50 years later, young Americans' view of their own history remains woefully blurred.

The congressionally chartered National Assessment of Educational Progress periodically checks the effectiveness of US education. Its first test of youngsters' grasp of history, in 1987, revealed, for instance, that all but a third of high school students couldn't correctly place the Civil War in the second half of the 19th century.

The latest assessment, released last week, shows that questions about the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine, or the chief goal of US foreign policy after World War II, baffle most students. Only 10 percent of high school seniors were judged ''proficient'' in American history.

These findings quickly bring to mind the controversy over national standards for history instruction. Those standards, published late last year, touched off a blizzard of criticism. Detractors saw multiculturalism and political correctness at work in this attempt to broaden the scope of traditional high school history. Defenders said the standards were simply trying to introduce more historical process and analytical thinking.

The unavoidable truth is America's students are in dire need of both facts and analysis. And they need straightforward history courses, not watered down amalgams of social studies and current affairs, with a dash of the past thrown in. The standards' fundamental purpose is to generate some fresh thinking about a subject that - when taught with commitment and imagination - is anything but ''bor-r-r-ing.''

May the current debate serve that purpose.

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