Commentary: Don't know much about history

The Rock Hill HeraldOctober 13, 2012 

Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the federal government. A story in The Herald last week says that 47 percent of South Carolina high school and middle schools failed an exam on U.S. history and the Constitution.

Are those two facts?

A. A coincidence.

B. Proof that this generation of Americans will grow up to be ignorant moochers.

C. Evidence of failing schools.

According to the article, of the more than 47,500 students who took the state’s end-of-course test on those two subjects, nearly half of those who passed squeaked by with a D. In other words, three out of four students are clueless about their country’s history or how the basic institutions of American democracy function.

Those numbers are staggering even for a state that is accustomed to seeing its children near the bottom in SAT performance. Indeed, even some York County schools that consistently boast high SAT scores have nothing to brag about. In the Fort Mill school district, 18.5 percent of students failed the U.S. history exam and 19.8 percent earned a D.

When more than a third of students attend those schools can’t do better than a D, something’s wrong. If these kids can master algebra, biology and English – the other “benchmark” courses tested every year – why are they so ignorant of the principles and institutions that govern their country?

Several teachers interviewed put the blame on the test, saying that it’s hard to prepare students for a test of 55 multiple-choice questions when the potential subject matter covers more than 300 years of history. They also say that the tests are not aligned with state guidelines for social studies.

Whatever the reason, such poor performance is inexcusable. It’s not as if students were expected to explain the influence of Aristotle on the intellectual development of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams but were first required to translate questions from Latin.

Here’s one of the sample questions provided by The Herald: “George Mason wrote in 1787 that, ‘The purse and the sword must not be in the same hands.’ Which principle in the U.S. Constitution best reflects the concern expressed in this quotation? A. due process of law, B. popular sovereignty, C. separation of powers, D. independent judiciary.”

A student could be forgiven for not knowing Founding Father George Mason, but any adolescent with a rudimentary knowledge of the principles on which our government is based ought to know that C. was the correct answer.

Bemoaning such ignorance isn’t an indictment of teachers so much as it pointing out what an abysmal job we Americans do to inculcate in young citizens understanding of our system of government and appreciation for how it evolved over three centuries

On a given day, opinion pages of our daily newspapers carry columns and letters to the editor that are filled with glib -- and often misleading -- statements about the role of various branches of government or the constitutionality of some law or regulation. In truth, the situation seldom is as simple as the author would have us think.

The edition of The Herald that announced how poorly South Carolina students tested on U.S. history also contained several articles that could have prompted an informative, disinterested discussion about government.

One story, an account of a York County Council meeting, could have provided fodder for an entire semester’s course in civics. After years of discussing whether to make it illegal to tether a dog improperly, our elected representatives appear poised to make a decision. The Founding Fathers might have been dumbfounded that government could tell a man he couldn’t mistreat his dog. After all, in those days dog fighting was a popular pastime.

The Constitution makes no mention of animal cruelty, so if my pit bull hasn’t bitten anyone, what right does the county have to tell me I can’t keep it tied up?

Then there’s a council member who wants the county to decide what color a business may paint its building….

Perhaps we should stop testing our children about history and civics and send them to a city or county council meeting instead.

They’d probably learn more.

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