Whad’Ya Know? (with Apologies to Michael Feldman)

They are at it again. Teens are all going to hell in a hand-basket. According to today’s New York Times, a “Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions.”

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

But guess what? According to historian Sam Wineburg in his sensible article, “Crazy for History” (Journal of American History, March 2004) there were comparable results when Texan students were tested in 1915-1916:

Across the board, results disappointed. Students recognized 1492 but not 1776; they identified Thomas Jefferson but often confused him with Jefferson Davis; they uprooted the Articles of Confederation from the eighteenth century and plunked them down in the Confederacy; and they stared quizzically at 1846, the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico war, unaware of its place in Texas history. Nearly all students recognized Sam Houston as the father of the Texas republic but had him marching triumphantly into Mexico City , not vanquishing Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto.

Please read Wineberg’s article, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn’s History on Trial:Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, Roy Rozenweig and David Thelen’s The Presence of the Past for more about this perennial issue.

And, please, those who are worried — calm down. It was ever thus.



Filed under History

5 responses to “Whad’Ya Know? (with Apologies to Michael Feldman)

  1. I agree that the self-involvement of teenagers is normal. But I also think that there are differences in the current situation. For one, we as adults have less sense of what history anyone needs to know, or why that matters. For another, wealthy tech companies spend a great deal of money to capture teenagers’ attention. So the challenge for us to break in to teenagers’ world is different, just as we are less clear on what we have to tell them. The question is not, is it worse, but what can we as authors, educators, parents, librarians do to give teenagers a history they will care about enough to learn. And, as I have said before, I think that is by expressing our own adult points of view, letting our stake in the stories we are telling be visible. Then we and teenagers connect, person to person.


  2. Monica, hope it’s ok if I tagged you for a passion quilit meme. You can read about at my BlogWalker site.



  3. Some of the multiple-choice questions are pretty silly. I’d like a high schooler to know that Hitler was chancellor and not kaiser, but confusing the two doesn’t seem to me like a major failure of historical consciousness.


  4. Pingback: Around The Blogosphere: No Child Left Behind | So You Want To Teach?

  5. Pingback: Teaching with Feeling « educating alice

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