Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature

From the "Department of Tell Me Something I Didn't Already Know," here comes a new survey finding that America's teenagers are ignorant of basic American history (via the New York Times):

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

The survey results, released on Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core.

The organization describes itself as a new research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in public schools....

In the survey, 1,200 17-year-olds were called in January and asked to answer 33 multiple-choice questions about history and literature that were read aloud to them. The questions were drawn from a test that the federal government administered in 1986.

About a quarter of the teenagers were unable to correctly identify Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in World War II, instead identifying him as a munitions maker, an Austrian premier and the German kaiser.

On literature, the teenagers fared even worse. Four in 10 could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s novel about a young man’s growing up in the South and moving to Harlem, “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles. About half knew that in the Bible Job is known for his patience in suffering. About as many said he was known for his skill as a builder, his prowess in battle or his prophetic abilities.

The history question that proved easiest asked the respondents to identify the man who declared, “I have a dream.” Ninety-seven percent correctly picked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

About 8 in 10, a higher percentage than on any other literature question, knew that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about two children affected by the conflict in their community when their father defends a black man in court.
Read the whole article, for I've ommitted the sections discussing how the sponsoring organization is using the findings to attack the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act as "crowding out" history and literature in the schools.

I'm not wading into this debate, except I will say that
while NCLB has its flaws, the law is possible one of the greatest attempts to expand equal protection in education opportunity in education in decades. I get these students at my college, unable to place the Civil War - or the Vietnam War - in historical context.

But more fundamentally (and sadly), I get these students (
way too many) who can barely read and write, and then who are expected to master a curriculum (in my department, at least) that would be challenging for an average freshman at San Diego State or UCLA .

So while I'm not surprised that 17 year-olds don't know much about history, I'd like to see
more discussion of the fundamental family, cultural, and community traditions that prevent these kids from gaining the underlying skills to needed master these texts, skills they'll need to develop into a meaningful, fully realized participatory citizenry.