HM - March 2019 - Opinion


Woodrow Wilson Foundation Finds Only One State Can Pass U.S. Citizenship Exam

by Claire McCaffery Griffin

Here we go again.  I “celebrated” Presidents’ Day by reviewing yet another report illustrating how abysmally ignorant Americans are about their collective past.  That sure makes me feel good about the 45 years I’ve spent in history education.   Talk about validation of a career….
In mid-February, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation (WWF) released the results of a 50-state survey of 41,000 adults finding that “only four in ten can demonstrate basic history understanding.”  The citizens of Vermont “excelled”:  53% of them achieved a passing score on the multiple-choice test.  You can see how the citizens of your fair state performed (you know you want to) and read the report summary here.
As history educators, we may (and probably should) quibble about the methodology of the study; have concerns about the uncontextualized nature of the questions (all of which come from the U.S.Citizenship test); and wonder whether a 20-item multiple choice test is an adequate assessment of historical knowledge and understanding (you know it’s not.)  And yet. . . surveys such as ‚Äčthese highlight the challenges faced by history educators and keep the conversation about history education front and center.
Commenting on the results, WWF President Arthur Levine notes that “Knowledge of American history must serve as an anchor in a time when change assails us, a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring and a vehicle for establishing a common bond when social divisions are deep.”
Who can argue with that?  Certainly not the members of NCHE.  For nearly 30 years, NCHE members have believed that “historical thinking develops a unique capacity to comprehend human situations, challenges and interactions.  Thinking historically introduces students to the wonders of the past and fosters the ability to make judgments about the present.  Such study serves as a foundation for life-long, productive learning and active citizenship.” (See  NCHE History’s Habits of Mind)
Let’s conclude with some good news:  Forty-one percent of the WWF respondents said that history was their favorite subject,  and 44% of the respondents studied history in college or graduate school.  I guess some of us are doing something right some of the time, but studies like this help remind our fellow citizens that our nation still needs more history, better taught.
Claire McCaffery Griffin, a Civic Education Consultant, serves on the Board of Directors for the NCHE

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.