Don't know much about history

It's often said that those who fail history are doomed to repeat it, usually in summer school.

American students -- surprise! -- don't have the grasp of history that they should, according to the results of a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

NAEP (which sounds like a rancher's way of saying "yes") asked 29,600 students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades some very tough questions about the First Continental Congress and the Civil War and other topics not currently featured on prime-time television.

According to the test results, 67 percent of fourth-graders, 64 percent of eighth-graders and 43 percent of seniors showed at least a basic grasp of history. The number of students judged at or above "proficient" were in the teens or worse.

Diane Ravitch, an education adviser to the Bush administration, noted that younger students'
scores were up slightly from previous years, but she called the seniors' numbers "truly abysmal."

"Since the seniors are very close to voting age or already have reached it," she said, "one can only feel alarm that they know so little about their nation's history."

(Government officials worry that ignorant new voters will consider all politicians to be money-grubbing scoundrels, and will make each decision in the voting booth by flipping a dime. A voter with the proper historical perspective knows politicians have always been considered money-grubbing scoundrels, and instead flips a quarter.)

Ravitch's alarm over 12th-graders' test scores overlooks two important points:

1) Seniors can see graduation coming -- the light at the end of the tunnel -- and they're no longer putting their best efforts into taking tests.

2) They were probably drunk.

Ravitch, however, blamed high schools, which she said "are failing to teach U.S. history well and to awaken mature students to the value of history as a study that matters deeply in their own lives and to the life of our nation."

This is precisely the problem, or as George Washington (the inventor of peanut butter) once said, it "hits the thumb on the nail." Many American students disdain history, expressing the sentiment that dead white men in powdered wigs and stockings using feathered quills to sign important documents have no relevance to modern life. They express this sentiment like this: "Aw, ma-a-a-an!"

Students ignore history at their own peril. History can crop up in adult conversations, and those who "don't know much about history" can be embarrassed and socially shunned:

Boss: "How about that game last night? A regular Battle of Hastings!"

Employee who was poor history student: "Huh?"

But an employee who'd paid attention in school would pause intelligently and say, "Ah, yes, the Battle of Hastings. I believe that was in 1967, was it not?"

Which employee do you think will get the big promotion?

So, as we can see, history is important. But it's not just the teachers of our great country who have the responsibility to imbue our children with a knowledge of history. It's also the job of parents to make sure children understand all that has come before.

That goes beyond just helping with homework. Parents need to make history a part of everyday life. Some suggestions:

--Parents should comment when current events mirror historical ones, helping their children to
see the connections that occur over time. For example, a parent might say, "Your behavior in church reminded me of the Battle of Hastings."

--Parents should set a good example for their kids by dozing in front of "The History Channel."

--Now that summer vacation's here, parents should consider taking long car trips to view our nation's historical monuments and places of interest. This can make history "come alive" for children in ways that dry textbooks can't and will produce lasting memories, if you don't all kill each other in the car.

--Parents can even read history books to their children in place of the typical "bedtime story." (They'll find that their kids go right to sleep, sometimes within seconds.)

Remember, parents, we're creating the informed citizens of tomorrow and it's a job we must do today. The rest is history.

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