Subjects Matter: It Is Past Time to Rescue the Study of History from Its Present Decline

It would be a mistake to believe that the current decline in historical literacy is due to the loss of some homogeneous version of the American story that used to hold the nation together. The problem is rather that younger generations are no longer being exposed to the historical themes that would most attract their interest.

The recent coverage of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial revealed a systemic problem that Americans routinely acknowledge but do little to correct.

As the prosecution and the defense teams delivered constitutional arguments soaked in theory, history, and founding documents, it became apparent to me that a majority of Americans were probably watching this important development in history as though it were a foreign language film. Quotes from James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and competing beliefs about original intent were sailing over the heads of many frustrated and anxious viewers. During moments of national importance like these, history teachers often receive a surge of requests for explanations, from students and adults alike. Instead of finding these questions flattering, I find them frightening: they make me realize that our population is becoming more and more vulnerable to those who might provide skewed interpretations of events to serve their own interests.

America’s static response to its crisis of historical illiteracy has allowed this situation to arise. If the American Republic is to last, it will need more individuals to devote themselves to civic virtue and to develop their own critical thought on important civic matters by studying our national history.

The Current State of Historical Literacy

Reports about Americans’ dismal understanding of their own history have appeared on a near annual basis over the last twenty years. Researchers, think tanks, and other educational stakeholders have published numerous studies that collectively give definitive evidence of the subject’s national decline. The repeated warning signs of this generation’s ignorance of its own history appear with greater frequency—and they portend a far more serious problem in the near future.

In the last two years, the national decline in knowledge of civics has garnered the attention of notable organizations that are eager to analyze the scope of the problem. The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center recently conducted a civics knowledge survey and learned that only two in five American adults could name all three branches of the federal government. In a separate study, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation determined that only one in three Americans could pass the basic U.S. citizenship test. The Brookings Institution found a slight improvement in civics education trends in early education, through its comparative analysis of the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). However, the Brookings study also revealed that the average time students spend learning history in twenty-first-century classrooms continues to dwindle, in keeping with the trend of recent decades. Brookings attributes much of the downward trajectory to an increased focus on the subjects tied to federal educational reform. That finding, perhaps more than students’ ignorance of basic American civic institutions, better tells the gravity of the decline.

Changes in the University Put the Study of History on a Downward Path

In a work from the 1990s entitled Telling the Truth about History, historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob described the traditional approach to history that prior generations experienced as college students—an approach that, we may logically assume, gave students a better understanding of civics, since the precipitous drop in civics literacy seems to be a recent phenomenon. The authors concluded:

The American university was the creation of a distinct and inherited version of Western high culture. . . . In the field of history, students were meant to learn the political narrative of Western development with particular attention to American and British institutions. . . . The teaching of history, whether about parliaments or science—from Plato to NATO—seemed only to reinforce the wisdom of the turn taken in the eighteenth century, the success of the Enlightenment enterprise.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a chorus of educational critics began to decry this mission of the American university as antiquated, and judged it ill-equipped to prepare graduates for an increasingly globalized world. Core changes were made to the traditional curriculum, although not immediately or uniformly. Contemporary Americans are currently witnessing the final waning of the vestiges and influence of the old model.

Historian James T. Patterson has claimed that the shift in curriculum and rigor on college campuses started in the wake of political unrest in the late 1960s. In his Bancroft Prize–winning book Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974, Patterson told how, during the turbulent years of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests, institutions looked for ways to avoid an escalation of campus violence. Administrators lowered traditional requirements and offered a broader choice of new courses, in an effort to pacify student groups who threatened upheaval. Slowly but surely, across the academic landscape, new programs proliferated. The coming of new fields of study related to rights-consciousness led schools to add an assortment of new majors. The academic overhaul enabled students to pursue a wide spectrum of interests, rather than master a common narrative or canon of works. These changes gave rise to a diverse collegiate experience; but they also created an environment where the standard content and required classics, which had shaped a common American identity, suffered.

Of course, the study of history had been undergoing major changes and challenges long before the late twentieth century: historiographical debates have shaped and reshaped historical viewpoints since the nation’s beginning. Starting from the ringing nationalism of the earliest works of history, the intellectual movements in the field have ebbed and flowed since the late 1800s. Positivists, Darwinists, progressives, Marxists, modernists, and even postmodernists have all produced alternative schools of thought that reinterpreted historical events through the lenses of their strong commitments. Their writings, whether one agreed or disagreed with them, offered new perspectives, and gave the American public a rich array of interpretations from which to learn. Many of those scholars focused on the most critical developments of the nation’s existence. A steady and constant renewed attention to colonialism, the American Revolution, constitutional theory, democratization, sectional strife, and many other familiar topics, attracted intense public interest and gave citizens a deeper understanding of the American experiment.

In short, it would be a mistake to believe that the current decline is due to the loss of some homogeneous version of the American story that used to hold the nation together. The problem is rather that younger generations are no longer being exposed to the historical themes that would most attract their interest and analysis.

Consequences, Challenges, and the Current Response to the Decline           

The overall effect of collegiate education on the general population’s understanding of American history is difficult to measure (although many have noticed a decrease in the pool of civic leaders and talented history teachers—two groups that cannot grow unless potential members receive a thorough history education). In any case, many believe the national decline in civics knowledge to be the direct result of what is happening at the university.

Josiah Bunting, III and others began to bring attention to the problem in the late 1990s. Bunting, a Rhodes Scholar and former superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, penned a work entitled An Education for Our Time, in which he described an ideal university that paid more attention to history. Bunting noted that the Founders “were soaked in the history of Rome and Greece, and they studied Greek and Latin. They knew their Bible; they were children of the political philosophers of the Enlightenment.” In an interview with The Atlantic, esteemed Colombia University history professor Eric Foner bluntly stated, “You have to know history to actually teach it;” and yet a growing number of college graduates and prospective history teachers are leaving the university with only a limited exposure to the content they need in order to succeed in their fields. Young history educators, the most important sources of civics education for the general populace, face a steep challenge.

Outside groups have stepped up to address the growing deficiency in public historical literacy. New York’s Gilder Lehrman Institute offers a broad selection of seminars and resources for teachers interested in developing a deeper mastery of historical content. The James Madison Memorial Foundation annually awards educators in each state a fellowship to pursue a rigorous study of American history, political science, or government. Other organizations such as We the People and The Bill of Rights Institute serve students and teachers alike by promoting robust civics education programs. Without the diligent work of these entities, the nation’s ignorance of civics could be even worse.

There are also excellent collegiate institutions dedicated to revitalizing the study of traditional history. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center, and the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center are committed to fostering better leaders, teachers, and students. These programs serve as shining examples of how to save our nation’s past and how to maintain a constitutional order.

The academic world would do well to learn from these models as it tries to revive national history education. But even the most successful of these approaches is limited by budgetary challenges; and none can compete with the federal government, which currently privileges science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees. The situation requires a larger and bolder plan of attack.

The USA Civics Act of 2019

In 2008, Congress approved the American History for Freedom program. The AHF program showed promise as a measure to rectify the decline in civics education. Central to the AHF’s effectiveness was its authorization, from the Department of Education, to assist academic programs by awarding them three-year competitive grants. The goals of the grants were to enhance the traditional study of history, to refocus on the threats to free institutions, and to promote the history and achievements of Western Civilization. The act passed, but Congress never appropriated any funds for the measure, and congressional supporters shied away from the issue in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. Since last year, however, eight senators across both parties have revived the idea, reintroducing the bill as the USA Civics Act of 2019. If history is to survive in the current educational environment, it will be necessary to rescue the subject from its diminished state. The USA Civics Act of 2019 is a step in the right direction.

Over the course of an entire generation, educational professionals have reduced history to nearly an elective. This decision has produced a spike in polarization, incivility, and general apathy. It is in the national interest to revitalize our approach to teaching history: the subject is part of the intellectual infrastructure so important for the nation’s long-term civic health.

During the impeachment trial, Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote “A Republic, if you can keep it,” echoed multiple times within the halls of Congress. Restoring the study of history is one of the best means by which to heed Franklin’s warning.

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