Countless studies confirm that young Americans have become distressingly ignorant about their national past. The latest Department of Education national history assessment (2010) shows that only 12 percent of American high school seniors have a firm grasp of U.S. history. More than half (55 percent) scored below the “Basic” achievement level. A 2012 Roper survey of college graduates found widespread ignorance about U.S. history and basic functions of government: only 17 percent of those polled, for example, could identify famous words from the Gettysburg Address or knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation. Noting a 2009 study that found that 39 percent of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment, civil libertarian Greg Lukianoff has described us as a nation in the process of “unlearning liberty.” We are perilously close to testing Thomas Jefferson’s famous admonition: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Our immigration system is broken — but so is our system of civic education.
Most colleges and universities no longer require students to take a basic course in U.S. history or government (less than 20 percent, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni), and those students who happen to take U.S. history as an elective are not likely to hear much praise for the land of the free and the home of the brave. In its recent study of the history curriculum in Texas universities, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) found a preoccupation with the themes of race, class, and gender injustice. Says the NAS, “Other matters –– individual rights, entrepreneurship, industrialization, self-reliance, religion, war, science — fade into the margins along with the persons and events associated with them.” In sum: students become well-versed in the history of American bigotry, prejudice, and exclusion — but learn next to nothing about the heroic chapters of the national story.
Herein lies a paradox: supporters of the DREAM Act — which would give high-performing children of undocumented immigrants an opportunity to attend college — defend it as the highest expression of Americans traditions. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urges its passage as a means of giving “hard-working, patriotic, young people a shot at the American Dream.” But once in college, these very same students may well enroll in courses that treat the American Dream as an illusion at best and a nightmare at worst.
I am not suggesting we return to a time when our past was whitewashed and presented in a naïve or jingoistic way. But all students need instruction that acquaints them with the key figures, events, and doctrines that make up our collective identity. And that instruction should foster understanding, pride in country, and civic attachment. Our national sins should be frankly acknowledged, but the grandeur of the American experiment must shine through. This is simply not happening today.