Monday, November 05, 2007

Historical Ignorance

As someone who teaches college students, I am continually amazed how historically illiterate many of them are. I had several conversations yesterday that were particularly frustrating. A large part of the problem is that undergraduate students are not well versed in history. It is not a subject that is taught in depth in most of the K-12 schools in the United States. Students often can graduate from high school with a single course in the subject. A recent study found that only 47.8% of college students could pass a basic history test.[i] More than half of the students in a 1999 study believed that Cornwallis surrendered to General Grant after Yorktown during the American Revolution.[ii]

This lack of basic historical knowledge is not limited to the United States. A study in the United Kingdom found that 83% of Scots did not know that Trafalgar was where Admiral Lord Nelson won his famous naval victory over the Spanish and the French.[iii] Chinese students also have been found to be lacking in historical knowledge. A study in Hong Kong found that only 37% of high schools students could pass a test on the history of the People’s Republic of China covering 1949 to the present.[iv]

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough calls this lack of historical knowledge in the United States a threat to national security. McCullough said, “We are raising a generation of people who are historically illiterate and ignorant of the basic philosophical foundations of our free society. We can’t function in a society if we don’t know who we are and where we came from.”[v]

OK, enough complaining. I am just going to have to work harder. History is important and college students should graduate with at least a basic grasp of world and American history.

[i] Gravois, J. (2006). Condemned to Repeat It. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(14), accessed on 18 June 2007 at

[ii] Cheney, L. (2001). Mrs. Cheney's Remarks on "Teaching for Freedom" at Princeton University. Accessed on 22 June 2007 at

[iii] Anonymous. (15 October, 2005). Scots ‘Ignorant’ about Trafalgar. Accessed on 18 June 2007 at

[iv] Clem, W. (July 9, 2005). Recent Chinese History ‘A mystery to students.’ South China Morning Post, p. 1.

[v] Archibald, G. (April 11, 2003). Ignorance of U.S. History Called Threat to Security. Washington Times, accessed on 18 June 2007 at


Charles said...

New to this blog.. but I'm enjoying it so far.

I think this is a problem that is so difficult to solve because I think society is increasingly focused on the idea of "success." It's evident that there is a decline in role models who could be classified as intellectuals. We have Brett Favre, Jennifer Aniston, Donald Trump and Oprah. The extent to which the argument that studying history will make you a smarter and probably a better person is persuasive in todays society (not very) is worrisome.

Jennie W said...

I also think it is often the way it is taught in K-12 schools (can you tell I'm a history teacher?). Students find history boring and useless because teachers aren't doing a good job of making it reveleant to them. I work really hard to incorporate general skills into my classes (like Internet skills) as well as a variety of takes so that students can really explore (for example, last term in Western Civ II, I had a lot of science majors, so I made sure to include articles about science related topics (like one discussing what disease could have killed Alexander the Great - written by a medical professional).

M-Dawg said...

I teach 9th grade World History. In my state of MA, the MCAS (a series of tests required by students to get their HS diploma in the core academic areas), they will be testing US History only.

I guess World History is no longer important??????

And, the state still requires us to teach World History as a survey so I don't have the time to get into the depth that I would prefer with my students. Ugh! :-(

J.L.W. said...

Mr Brown, I have visited your blog for the first time recently and I find it very informative and well written. As a World History teacher, I agree that sometimes teachers and the education system are at fault for historical ignorance. This may be due to the education system at large or individual teachers. Yet, some research has been done based on social identity and student's historical understanding. A student's religious, ethnic, racial, and gender identity may impact how much and which historical knowledge students retain over time. This is evident in not only in America but other countries as well. Very little attention is ever given to this topic. Also, with the multiple intelligences being strongly encouraged to capture and keep student's attention, it is easier to delve deeper into topics but it is much more difficult to cover as much material. Who should decide what is important and what is not important when we have thousands of years of World History to teach?