Lincoln 200 and the US History MCAS requirement

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Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has a beautiful letter she sent out today. It begins:

Anniversaries and birthdays—humble and not so humble—give all of us occasion to celebrate and to give thanks. Today, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, who so eloquently understood that America’s founding documents embody not just abstract propositions but living, breathing principles that unite us as a people.

In his speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln called for Americans, to “re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it.” It was time, he said, that “all Americans—…all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work” of America. And for the next decade, indeed until his death, Lincoln worked tirelessly to achieve an America where all people, North and South, were united in their understanding of the ideas on which our country was founded.

But she goes on to sound the alarm on how many people will even know what is in the Declaration of Independence.

Now, 200 years after his birth, we in America find ourselves faced with a similar challenge. On the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics test, the majority of eighth graders could not explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And college students fare little better.

Anne is right. How many people came close to understanding President Obama’s references to founding documents in his inaugural speech? The US may not have the tens of centuries of history “present” in some parts of the world. But for that very reason, and because we are a country of ideals, our history is especially important.

So why is it that Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is very likely going to “suspend” the US History MCAS exam as a graduation requirement? Massachusetts is a lovely state, with really smart people, who do really dumb things.