Children Kept Ignorant About America's Past, Scholar Says

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - The story of America's founding-its leaders and underlying principles-is important in the ongoing fight to preserve liberty, says Lynne Cheney, author, American Enterprise Institute scholar, former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, and vice presidential spouse.

But schools and parents are failing to teach history in a way that equips young people to defend liberty and traditional American values, Cheney has concluded, and students remain ignorant of the past.

A National Assessment of Educational Progress test found that 57 percent of high school seniors scored below basic in the U.S. history exam. In other words, a majority of students could not identify the significance of important places, people and ideas in American history.

A survey of seniors at elite colleges and universities showed that only one out of five was familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address, and many thought that Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the Revolutionary War.

Cheney places much of the blame on a revisionist view of history that is overly critical of America's founding. In fact, she led a successful 1994 campaign against proposed national history standards, which she found similarly objectionable.

One "idea I've come across is that the American story is a tale of sound and fury that doesn't signify very much," she said, addressing a luncheon crowd at the National Press Club on July 2-the date in 1776 that the Continental Congress voted unanimously to declare American independence from England.

"To believe that we have made progress, so the thinking goes, is to be ethnocentric, to fall victim to a myth that the powerful use to keep everybody else in their place," Cheney said.

Many history text books for undergraduate and education courses have similarly "really surprising ideas," she continued, "such as the notion that events like the Civil War, long thought significant, really don't matter very much.

"Union victory might have meant emancipation for African-Americans, one widely-used book tells us, but they and working-class Americans of every race were subsequently enslaved by capitalism," Cheney added.

Another common but wrong-headed notion, she says, is that it's a mistake to study leaders in history "because doing so perpetrates the myth that he represents something important to all of us, and there is nothing important to all of us ... [because] our society consists of different groups with different interests.

"According to this view, and those who say otherwise -- and this is in a widely-used book -- those who say otherwise are simply trying to make sure that the oppressed stay that way," Cheney said.

These ideas are easy to refute, she says. "But, you have to know something in order to dispute them."

The underlying problems, Cheney believes, include not only revisionist history, but low educational standards ("only about a fifth of the states have good standards") and unprepared teachers ("particularly in the early grades, teachers have not been encouraged to study history in college").

Elaine Reed, executive director for the National Council for History Education, agrees that there are big problems in the way history is now taught.

For example, in a recent review of New Jersey's state standards for history, which dictate what's on standardized tests and, in turn, what students are taught in the classroom, neither Thomas Jefferson nor any of the Founding Fathers were included in the standards for what children ought to learn and what they ought to know in American history, said Reed.

"It was shocking," she said. "I just think that is out and out wrong. It was very bizarre."

Reed traces the problem to historical revisionism that discounts the contributions of Jefferson and his contemporaries because many of them owned slaves.

"One of the problems in the history community is that people like Thomas Jefferson are being revised, so to speak. Their role in history is being looked upon from present day viewpoints," she said. "People are saying, well, he was a slaveholder, therefore we're not going to teach kids about him.

"Kids don't learn about what Thomas Jefferson did contribute to our heritage-they don't learn about the Declaration of Independence, they don't learn about his presidency [and] they don't learn about religious freedom," said Reed.

The upshot, she says, is that history is de-emphasized and lumped into social studies courses that try to teach a range of subjects at once.

Both Cheney and Reed believe such trends need to be reversed.

Part of the solution, Cheney believes, is that parents and grandparents need to do their part by helping to teach children about important historical figures and events.

"We need to know so that we can tell them about the courageous men and women who inspired us to live up to the ideals that the founders advanced, people like Frederick Douglass, who worked not only against slavery but for the rights of African-Americans, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who ... spent 50 years fighting for women's rights, and ... meanwhile, raised seven children."

Cheney's latest book, "America: A Patriotic Primer," is an alphabet book celebrating American patriotism and history.

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.