Public school professionals place so much emphasis on diversity, tolerance and cultural understanding. How much classroom time is left to learn the facts about how our nation came to be?
Even though schools teach about U.S. history, at least one Federal Way teacher has indicated there is no way to define “traditional American” educational values.
A colleague and I recently interviewed three students about American history. All three are in the Cambridge Program at Federal Way High School. The first student, a 10th-grader, was fairly sure that World War II occurred before the Civil War. The other two students seemed somewhat uncertain. Keep in mind that the Cambridge Program offers students the opportunity to earn the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE), which is similar to the International Baccalaureate certificate.
The students were aware that the Industrial Revolution occurred in more than one country, and seemed to have a fairly good idea as to when it began. All three students agreed that the Boston Massacre occurred in connection with the Revolutionary War. None of the students knew which nations participated in the French and Indian War, but the name of that war is misleading — we should have referred to it as the Seven Years War.
Incidentally, the test that we used to identify appropriate subject matter was designed for Texas eighth-graders and requires detailed knowledge of things like the Seven Years War. Despite the fact that I have read a whole book about the Seven Years War, I had a hard time answering many of the questions on the test. So we decided to make the questions considerably easier.
A ninth-grader recollected after several awkward moments that the Civil War occurred before World War II. She remembered what she had learned about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
I asked whether the students had heard of John Brown, a radical abolitionist. Harriet Tubman helped John Brown recruit men for his armed raid on Harpers Ferry, a raid on a federal armory to obtain additional weapons in order to arm blacks and free the slaves on Southern plantations. John Brown’s raid was in my kids’ U.S. history curriculum. None of the three students knew anything about John Brown or the raid. Most historians agree that the unsuccessful uprising made the differences between Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders impossible to resolve without war.
The questions that we asked, and the format of the interview, were far from scientific. We purposely avoided questions about specific dates. Nevertheless, our tentative conclusion is that diversity studies and cultural awareness are the main source of the minimal information our best students are able to access regarding the time sequences of important events in U.S. history. Try asking some questions about U.S. history at home with your students and let us know what you think. Everyone can benefit by deeper understanding of how we all came to be the United States of America.