Our schools ignore US history at our peril

State must make good on requirement for history instruction and testing

ABOUT 25 YEARS AGO, as a member of the Massachusetts Senate, I co-authored the Massachusetts Education Reform Act. Drafting a complex bill with such far-reaching consequences requires significant compromise, but one thing my counterparts in the House of Representatives and then-Gov. Bill Weld all agreed upon was the importance of educating students about our nation’s history.

As a result, the law explicitly requires instruction about the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the US Constitution. We also made passage of a US history test a high school graduation requirement.

Sadly, subsequent generations of political leaders have not shared our view of the importance of US history. It is now becoming an afterthought in too many of our public schools.

The Founding Fathers believed that to exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship, Americans had to understand our history and its seminal documents. They also saw it as the role of public schools to pass on what James Madison called “the political religion of the nation” to its children. As the great educational standards expert E.D. Hirsch said, “The aim of schooling was not just to Americanize the immigrants, but also to Americanize the Americans.”

Without this, they believed the new nation itself might dissolve. They had good reason: Until then internal dissension had brought down every previous republic.

According to Professor Hirsch, the public school curriculum should be based on acquiring wide background knowledge, not just learning how to learn. This belief is diametrically opposed to the view held by many that the main purpose of public education should merely be to prepare students for the workforce. As it turns out, the evidence is fairly strong that students who receive a broad liberal arts education also tend to do better financially than those taught a narrower curriculum focused on just training students for a job.

The role of public schools in creating citizens capable of informed participation in American democracy was particularly important in a pluralistic society like ours. Unlike so many others, our country was not based upon a state religion, ancient boundaries or bloodlines, but instead on a shared system of ideas, principles, and beliefs.

On the heels of their experience as British subjects, our nation’s founders envisioned public schools as a way to create an aristocracy based on merit and talent; a nation of strivers in which hard work and intelligence – not birthright – would determine who succeeds.

When Horace Mann, the father of American public education, took the helm of the new Massachusetts Board of Education in the 1830s, he too believed that public education’s most important role was to prepare students to be active participants in our nation’s democracy. When he founded the first system of public schools, he envisioned it as a way to safeguard democracy by educating students in its principles.

The Patrick administration eliminated the requirement that students pass a US history test to graduate from high school in 2009, before the test was ever given, citing the $2.4 million administration cost. As a former Senate Ways and Means chair, I don’t denigrate a $2.4 million line-item. Yet, in a $40 billion state budget, the money could be found with relative ease if there were a sincere desire to implement the test.

Since the demise of the graduation requirement, history and civics education have been sidelined in Massachusetts, especially in urban school districts. Entire history departments have been eliminated and it’s common for the history courses that remain to be taught by teachers whose expertise is in other subjects. Meanwhile, Arizona and Indiana are among the states that fund civics instruction as early as third grade.

English, math, science, and social studies – including history – are all important. We should not sacrifice one to improve performance in another.

Without reinstating passage of a US history test as a graduation requirement, there will continue to be no way to measure student progress in history and civics, or to ensure that local school districts affirmatively support history departments.

To make room for the history assessment without over-testing students, Massachusetts could seek a waiver from federal law, which requires annual testing in English and math. Since we already know the Commonwealth’s students are national leaders in those subjects, I believe our chances of getting a waiver would be strong.

Meet the Author

Tom Birmingham

Guest Contributor, Pioneer Institute
Unless we again make US history and the documents that form the basis of our republic a priority, we risk a generation that will be unable to fully participate in America’s democracy. And it won’t take many such generations before the very republic itself is placed at risk.

Tom Birmingham, a former president of the state Senate, is the Distinguished Senior Fellow in Education at Pioneer Institute and co-author of the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.