Teaching American History - The Enduring Legacy of the American Revolution: Liberty Freedom and Equality


The Importance of History

Institutionally, our country fosters historical amnesia. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education reported that more than half of all high school seniors hadn't even the most basic understanding of American history. 

Learning from the Past

Thomas Jefferson wrote that schooling in America should be "chiefly historical." He said, "The people are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty. History, by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future. It will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men." A century later Woodrow Wilson agreed that history endows us with "the invaluable mental power, which we call judgment." 

Our founding fathers believed that democracy has a special need for education and history, because democracy is government by the people. The people must acquire "democratic virtues" and learn through instructive examples from history respect for the rights of individuals, regard for the law, voluntary participation in public life, and concern for the common good. 

A Sense of Perspective

David McCullough has stated, "Indifference to history isn't just ignorant; it's a form of ingratitude. And the scale of our ignorance seems especially shameful in the face of our unprecedented good fortune. ... I'm convinced that history encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, gives us a sense of how brief is our time on earth and thus how valuable that time is."

History recounts important stories of events and people who can serve as models of who to be, and not to be, what to be involved with and what to avoid and can serve as the basis of decision-making all our lives. 

The Socio-Economic Need for History Requirements

The discipline of history provides skills such as critical thinking about documents, cause and effect relationships, and abilities to read and summarize material, often to journalize and understand one's local history in order to make more informed decisions.

In the School Quality Standards published in January 1999, a student is required to take three years of social studies/history. A student is not required to take American history and can graduate from a Vermont high school with no history courses. (School Quality Standards, Section 2120.8.2.1, p. 12). 

A further indication of the lack of importance imparted to this discipline is that 15 years ago John Nelson was the Social Studies/History Consultant in the Department of Education. Since then there has been no Coordinator in this discipline. Areas such as writing, science, and math are recognized and have their coordinators. 

The poverty rate for Vermont, and its impact on formal learning and appreciation of traditional American history, is particularly alarming.  Because fewer Vermont graduating seniors are going on to postsecondary education, the need for a strong American history curriculum becomes even more essential for high schools and elementary schools if they are to be knowledgeable citizens and value participatory democracy. It may well be the last formal opportunity for these citizens to study and appreciate the contributions of others in the shaping and development of the United States.  

According to the statistics of the Boys and Girls Club in Rutland one out of every five children lives below the poverty line. The child welfare rate is double that of the rest of the state. The median family income is $3,697 lower than the state average and 76% of elementary school-age children qualifies for free or reduced lunch. The lack of financial resources often limits further formal education. Vermont ranks 45th in the nation for states with the fewest numbers of students who go on to higher education (Postsecondary Education Opportunity, September, 2002). 

Vermont had the highest percentage of poverty rates for children under 19 of all the New England states and was close to 10% higher than the New England average.

Copyright 2007, Teaching American History