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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2001 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Marc Berley

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Teach American history again -- NOW that we're united in this war against terrorism, it's time to find the resolve to start teaching American history again. The terrorists know our history, whereas most American college students don't. This must change.

Last May, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) publicized "Losing America's Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century," a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) that documents the poor understanding college students have of the basics of American History. To take one example, only 23 percent correctly identified James Madison as the "father of the Constitution."

The ACTA report did not poll just any students. It polled seniors at the nation's top 55 colleges. "Anyone who doubts that we are raising a generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate," said distinguished historian David McCullough, "needs only to read this truly alarming report."

The ACTA report is only one of a number of recent wake-up calls. A survey of State University of New York (SUNY) students revealed that almost half of them would flunk the basic test in American history required for immigrants who seek citizenship in the United States.

Only 44 percent of the SUNY students surveyed could put the following historical events in chronological order: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the Korean War, and America's invasion of Normandy.

The SUNY survey, conducted by Zogby International for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, included questions taken from both the U.S. citizenship exam and past New York State Regents exams in American History. Passing the citizenship exam requires 7 of 10 correct answers. Only 56 percent of SUNY students gave enough correct answers to pass.

While college students don't know as much as they should about American history, they do know what they're missing. In a national survey of college students released last April by the Foundation for Academic Standards & Tradition (FAST), 8 out of 10 college students said their schools need to "do a better job teaching students the basic principles of freedom in America."

This war against terrorism is going to be a long one, and it is going to require heightened intelligence. Not only must the CIA, the FBI, and other agencies perform in new and challenging ways. American citizens must know what we're fighting for.

Now that envious mass murders such as Osama bin Laden seek to destroy America because of what it stands for, students need to understand American history, especially its relation to the history of the world.

In his famous "Circular Letter" of June 14, 1783, George Washington outlined America's unfinished work. "At this auspicious period," he wrote, "the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own."

Our history is great, characterized by unique self-corrections and courageous fights for liberty. And once again we have work to do. As Thomas Jefferson warned: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."

JWR contributor Marc Berley, president of the Foundation for Academic Standards & Tradition, is author of After the Heavenly Tune and co-editor of The Diversity Hoax. Comment by clicking here.


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09/25/01: Why Can't Israel Be "With Us"?
09/20/01: Because We're America

© 2001, Marc Berley