MetroWest Daily News: “Gass: State flunking the history test”

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By Jamie Gass
December 30, 2012

This past year marked the bicentennial of our War of 1812 against Great Britain. Called the “Second War of American Independence,” it tore up North America for nearly three years and resulted in the burning of Washington, D.C. But today, despite its numerous historical touchstones, few of us know much about “Mr. Madison’s War.”

Sadly, that seems unlikely to change. U.S. history and civics scores on the 2010 “nation’s report card” were horrendous; the average 12th grade score is essentially unchanged in 20 years. And Massachusetts has decided to raise the white flag of surrender when it comes to giving history its appropriate place in our public schools.

By 1812, Britain’s 584-ship and 114,000-sailor Royal Navy was regularly attacking American commercial ships and pressing our sailors into British naval service. “Our enemy is powerful in men and in money, on land and on water,” wrote President James Madison. “He is aiming with his undivided force a deadly blow…at our national existence.”

The British Empire also forged a strategic alliance with Tecumseh’s Confederacy of Midwestern and some Southern Indian tribes to slash at U.S. citizens. With few good options, Congress and President Madison declared war, leading a bitterly divided country, which was hampered by the enfeebled military forces Madison’s own party spent 11 years depleting.

History has all but forgotten British Major General Robert Ross, but in August of 1814 he delivered a humiliation unmatched by any enemy in our nation’s history: Ross torched the U.S. Treasury, the Capitol building, and the White House.

First Lady Dolley Madison instructed White House personnel to rescue the valuables. Paul Jennings, President Madison’s slave, reported in his eyewitness memoirs, “John Susé (…then door-keeper…) and [Thomas] Magraw, the President’s gardener,” just ahead of British troops, “took [Gilbert Stuart’s full-length portrait of George Washington] down and sent it off on a wagon…”

A month later, the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry,” now our “Star Spangled Banner,” was written by Francis Scott Key, after witnessing that Baltimore fort sustain a “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” bombardment by British warships.

In late 1814, Madison recalled Massachusetts-born diplomatic genius John Quincy Adams from his ambassadorial post in Russia to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. Foolishly, the British sent their second-tier diplomats to finalize the peace. As one historian noted, “what the Americans lost on the battlefield, they made up for at the negotiating table.” Even in military defeat, future president Quincy Adams skillfully retained the war’s biggest prize: Status quo ante bellum — “the state in which things were before the war.”

In January 1815, peace news traveled slowly from Europe and the fighting raged on. Another future president, Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory” himself, successfully defended New Orleans against British assault.

John Quincy Adams wasn’t the only local tie to the War of 1812. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s 1830 poem, “Old Ironsides,” immortalized the naval exploits of the Boston-built USS Constitution.

To ensure that knowledge of events like the War of 1812 would be passed on to successive generations, passing a basic U.S. history MCAS test had long been scheduled to become a high school graduation requirement for the Class of 2012.

But in 2009, the Patrick administration torpedoed it. Massachusetts education officials cited the cost of administering the tests.

But state legislators, who appropriate the money, disagree. In a recent poll, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of those lawmakers surveyed said they could find the $2.4 million needed within the $4.5 billion the state spends annually on K-12 public education (local taxpayers contribute another $4.5 billion).

What isn’t tested isn’t taught. The Patrick administration’s fateful decision has marginalized American history instruction across the commonwealth, disproportionately impacting access to history and civics in urban schools.

“[President] Madison never surrendered habeas corpus, never imprisoned anyone for sedition or for criticizing the government,” commented an historian about the prosecution of the war. “Madison conducted the war according to the laws of the Constitution, because he thought it was strong enough to do so.” If the “Father of the Constitution” could uphold our nation’s principles while the White House burned, shouldn’t Massachusetts students at least be required to pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school?

Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

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