Posted by | June 21, 2011 18:57 | Filed under: Top Stories

by Stuart Shapiro

Earlier today, Alan posted about how Rick Santorum was blaming liberals for recent poor test scores in history.  And yes, I’m sure someone will blame conservatives at some point as well.  But while the scores are bad, they are not atypical for American students.

And yet it may be that, while kids aren’t getting better, they’re not getting worse. The history of history-education evaluation is littered with voguish pedagogy, statistical funny business, ideological arm wrestling, a disproportionate emphasis on trivia, and a protocol that insures that each generation of kids looks dim to its elders. “We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976. (And it’s not just Americans: an infamous 2004 survey revealed that a small percentage of Britons aged sixteen to twenty-four believed that the Spanish Armada was vanquished by Gandalf.)

Now this doesn’t mean that the poor scores are OK or something we should be satisfied with.  Far from it.  But it does mean that anyone who tells you the scores are the fault of some group isn’t very good at history themselves.

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Copyright 2011 Liberaland
By: Stuart Shapiro

Stuart is a professor and the Director of the Public Policy
program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers
University. He teaches economics and cost-benefit analysis and studies
regulation in the United States at both the federal and state levels.
Prior to coming to Rutgers, Stuart worked for five years at the Office
of Management and Budget in Washington under Presidents Clinton and
George W. Bush.