Preserving U.S. history in classroom

Nov 21, 2011 by

By Jamie Gass =

The great Southern novelist and historian Shelby Foote said, “Any understanding of this nation has to be based … on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us … It was the crossroads of our being …” Unfortunately, this year’s 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is a sad reminder of the sorry state of history education in Massachusetts and across the nation.

U.S. history and civics scores on the 2010 “nation’s report card” were abysmal; the average 12th-grade score has barely budged since 1994.

Few American students have a working knowledge of the Civil War and its causes, like slavery. According to the 1860 census, 8 percent of America’s families owned the nation’s approximately four million slaves. “No day ever dawns for the slave,” a freed black man wrote. “For the slave it is all night — all night, forever.”

The North’s and South’s “irrepressible conflict” produced some of the nation’s most storied military leaders, including generals Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Joshua Chamberlain, the Bowdoin College professor who was the hero of the pivotal 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

The Civil War killed approximately 625,000 Americans and another 405,000 were wounded. There were 10 battles with combined Union and Confederate casualties of 17,000 or more. In Vietnam, 26 Americans died for each day of the war; that number was 416 people in World War II. From 1861 to 1865, daily Civil War deaths averaged 599.

It now appears that most of our children will never know these historical facts and human realities. And without understanding the Civil War, how can our children grasp the significance of, say, President Barack Obama winning three former Confederate states — Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia — in 2008?

The situation is no better in the Bay State, which was home to the great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator newspaper, and Sen. Charles Sumner, who was nearly caned to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate for his strident speeches against slavery. The Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the American military’s first official black units, is memorialized directly across the street from our statehouse.

Passing a basic U.S. history MCAS test had long been scheduled to become a high-school graduation requirement for the class of 2012. But in 2009, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education ditched it.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling American novel of the 19th century and helped fuel abolitionist sentiment in the years leading up to the Civil War. So influential was the book that when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the war, he declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

But Massachusetts students soon won’t be reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin either. Last year, state education officials replaced our nation-leading state academic standards with weaker national standards that don’t cover much history, or literature, in high school.

“America will never be destroyed from the outside,” Lincoln said. “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” The nation’s ongoing war of neglect of its own history is making President Lincoln’s words sound eerily far-sighted.

It seems unimaginable, but today’s education leadership both in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., is so anemic that the same country that helped win World War II, put a man on the moon, and defeated Soviet communism is failing to instruct its young people about even the basics of an event Shelby Foote called “the crossroads of our being.”

With the commonwealth’s students missing out on studying the Civil War and its literary tradition, the time has come to restore our history to its rightful place in Massachusetts schools by reinstating the requirement that students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school.

Jamie Gass is Director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts think tank.

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