Preventing historic amnesia
Each generation of Americans has faced the challenge of preserving freedom for the next generation. At times, this task has centered on the ballot box. At others, it has led to the battlefield, and to incredible sacrifice overseas and at home. Perhaps most frequently, however, the front line of defending freedom has been in the classroom.
For more than two centuries, we have recognized the importance of teaching our children the ideas and principles our country was founded upon, and of helping them to appreciate the courage and commitment of those who came before us.
We must make sure each new generation of Americans learns and understands what it means to be American. Unfortunately, recent surveys show that many students today are failing to learn American history. Indeed, for two generations we have watched our nation’s memory of the past slowly slip away.
The Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress shows just how widespread this problem is. In a recent survey, only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders were at grade-level proficiency in American history.
Just one in three fourth-graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than half understood why George Washington was an important leader in American history. And most fourth-graders didn’t know why the Pilgrims left England.
These are alarming findings, as they indicate that young Americans are not learning to appreciate the great privilege of being American and the responsibilities it entails.
Founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are at the heart of our national identity. We must understand them and pass them on to all young Americans.
As the author of three children’s books on American history, I have visited classrooms across the country to share the adventures of Ellis the Elephant, my time-travelling pachyderm, with four to eight year olds. Most young people I meet are energetic and eager to learn. As adults, we must find creative ways to teach American history. This is especially true for those of us who love American history.
The need to find better ways to teach American history is what inspired me to create my Ellis the Elephant series. In my new book, Yankee Doodle Dandy, children join Ellis as he discovers the pivotal moments of the American Revolution, including the Boston Tea Party, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Washington’s difficult winter at Valley Forge.
Like children’s books, new technology also has the potential to make history come alive for young people. New online learning systems such as Khan Academy, along with fun and educational video games, capture children’s attention in ways never before possible.
And of course, visits to historic sites like George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, or Independence Hall in Philadelphia can be wonderful opportunities to teach children about our rich heritage.
Those of us who are passionate about American history must find ways to fight historic amnesia to ensure that young Americans appreciate the greatness of our nation.
Callista Gingrich is the author of the children’s book, Yankee Doodle Dandy (Regnery 2013).