Many educators, policymakers, Republicans and Democrats are now talking reasonably about the future of education. It is important to prescribe what should be done. The belief is that the federal government could provide the answers. Driven by the spirit of reform at the state and local level that has changed the focus of education from inputs to outputs, there is now an educational bottom line. Education seems to be the only sector of the economy that is not competing for top talent. Almost every state has created some sort of alternative route to teacher certification – though many jurisdictions make limited use of them.
The focus on education policy must be changed to progress on student achievement, not process and micromanagement. Hailing an important change in the terms of debate, accountability, flexibility and choice are now part of the mainstream education discussion. The fact that policymakers are debating education on those terms is reason for optimism. What’s truly amazing is that it took us this long as a nation to collectively realize that student academic progress and a public education system that remains fully accountable to everyone for ensuring that progress are just plain good ideas. There’s nothing magical or controversial in demanding tough academic performance.
We urge colleges to mandate more history studies and parents to send their children only to universities that have substantial history requirements. The knowledge of U.S. history is the “civic glue” that gives a diverse America a singular purpose. Ignorance of the past, unfortunately, is all too commonplace today – and not just among youngsters who know more about their favorite video games characters than the presidents on Mount Rushmore or teens who couldn’t begin to explain the significance of Gettysburg Address. The problem extends even to institutions whose very mission is to provide higher education.
History is essential to full and informed participation in civic life and to the larger vibrancy of the American experiment, and without knowledge of it, bedrock principles like liberty, justice and equality will be forgotten. According to a new survey, 79 percent of seniors at elite colleges and universities could not answer basic high-school level questions about U.S. history.
The presidential election of 2020 will be remembered for many things, surely, but perhaps what should most immediately concern all Americans is just how little we understood the political process. Americans came to grips with their need to figure out just what happens when they vote, what counts and what doesn’t, what an Electoral College is, and why the popular vote isn’t what they thought it was cracked up to be. The relative political illiteracy of the American people should come as no surprise, particularly to educators who daily confront good, earnest hardworking students who can’t tell them who sits on the nation’s Supreme Court, let alone who sits in the state House. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to members of Congress.
The students who took the test were ignorant of the history of America’s most familiar leaders, of basic constitutional principles and of defining moments in our past. An unbelievable 40 percent apparently needed a lifeline or two to even pinpoint the timeframe of the Civil War as being within the 50-year period 1850-1900.
The events of the last few years – the impeachment and trial of a president – have provided compelling evidence of the resiliency and vibrancy of our constitutional republic. Those events also remind each of us just how much might be at stake should the American people lose touch with the principles and practices that help to mold and sustain the republic.
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