Being reminded once again of the woeful performance of American students in knowledge of history by the published results of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress is definitely less than reassuring.
When one learns that a mere 13 percent of high school seniors tested showed a solid grasp of history, while eighth- and fourth-graders fared little better (18 and 22 percent, respectively, were proficient), it is embarrassing.
Although the test scores for all of the grades tested showed some improvement over those of 1994, they were but marginally higher and virtually unchanged from the 2006 testing.
By no stretch of the imagination can this sorry performance be excused, particularly when the problem was identified decades ago. One can find any number of venues to assess blame; however, in my and many other's estimation, the culprit is the ignoring of historical fact and replacing it with the "social studies" concepts of diversity, multiculturalism, gender and race. Regardless of the importance today's educators may place upon the social aspects, without a factual appraisal of when, why and how we got from the revolution to the present, the teaching of history is not only irrelevant, but dull.
As one who was last in an American history classroom in 1953 but maxed out the sample test questions, I stand by my opinion — lessons learned stay with the individual. Some will, of course, disagree, but something is obviously amiss in the teaching of history in our schools, and it cannot be all blamed on dumb or uninterested students.
I wish I could boast that this was foremost in my mind last week when we had the privilege of entertaining and being entertained by our two grandsons, ages 9 and 13 — ages when grandma and grandpa are still cool. They are good kids and extremely bright (as are all grandchildren), but when left to their own devices, tend to get wrapped around the axles of hand-held electronic games, the identification of which is beyond my comprehension as are the workings thereof.
To make a long story short, we organized a Thursday outing to Fulton, the site of the late Mr. William E Backer's Auto World Museum and Westminster College, the location of Winston Churchill's famed "Iron Curtain" speech and an authentic segment of the Berlin Wall. This adventure was a stark departure of the usual fare of ChuckE. Cheese's, miniature golf, Going Bonkers and swimming at the ARC. We had no preconceived notion of the education quotient of the day trip.
The first stop was the Auto Museum, where we viewed a short film describing its founding and then toured the floor and its 80-plus cars beginning with an 1895 Haynes (one of only two known to exist) and ending with 1980s vehicles. There were Model T's and A's, massive old touring cars, runabouts, a Whippet and a Delorean. There are Packards, Buicks, Chevrolets (my favorite, a 1957 red convertible), Fords, Hudsons and the much maligned Edsel and Corvair. You name it, it is on the floor.
Grandsons Joshua and Adam had a blast; they moved from car to car, excitedly reading the plaques with the specifications, model and year and asking questions. Reluctantly, they obeyed the "do not touch" admonishment received upon entrance to the facility but departed with a lasting knowledge and appreciation of the advent and progress of the automobile in America.
Next was the Churchill Museum and the Berlin Wall sections on display, complete with colorful Teutonic graffiti — particularly prevalent the use of the word "unwahr," which I remember as untrue from my studies. The Wall was the most electrifying for the youngsters, the 13-year-old Joshua having some knowledge and the 9-year-old Adam's natural enthusiasm for anything new, were the catalysts.
They read all of the commemorative plaques (both read at above their grade level) and asked intelligent questions about the reason for the Wall and its ultimate fall. Their quest for information led to the formation of East and West Berlin and Germany alike during the Cold War and included the Berlin Airlift. All in all, it was a very productive day.
The lesson here is two-fold — first, the factual experience of history, sans the revision for social engineering, can be both interesting and fun, particularly if it is made a "hands-on" experience. Secondly, there is an abundance of historical treasure within a few hours or a day's drive of Columbia — a virtually untapped resource of learning readily available and, sadly, not crowded.
By taking advantage of the opportunities available to increase a basic knowledge of American history, perhaps the pitiable ignorance portrayed by Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" audience can be a thing of the past.