U.S. history lessons getting short shrift

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With the state pouring $3.2 billion a year into the Massachusetts public  school system, it’s fair to say that present-day students have basic resources  to be smarter than any previous generation.

But what do Massachusetts students really learn in the classroom? And what  should they be learning?

When it comes to U.S. history, the answer is not much.

One would think that a basic education for any living and breathing American  citizen would include learning about how the nation was founded, where the  people came from, why they came here, and the significant events that have  shaped our heritage and culture. Americans have always identified with a  pioneering spirit, rugged individualism and the ability to come together in a  time of crisis and need, whether to help others or to defend our freedoms from  domestic and foreign threats.

It’s ironic that immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship must study U.S.  history and become familiar with the U.S. Constitution and how our three  branches of government — executive, legislative, judicial — operate.  Immigrants must pass a 100-question exam and recite the Pledge of Allegiance  before citizenship is granted.

Could all U.S. middle-school and high-school students pass the same  citizenship test if it were given to them today? That is highly doubtful. Why?  Because more and more schools in Massachusetts and across the country have  eliminated history, civics and social-studies programs.    

Educators say money is a factor. Certainly, budget reductions have forced school leaders to  make tough decisions in recent years, but the elimination of history and civics  classes are not wise choices. We can see a direct correlation in the rise of  ethnic fragmentation and disintegration of America’s “melting pot” principle  because of it. The national motto, “E Pluribus unum” — one from many — is  being diminished and forgotten.

In some U.S. public school districts, students are being taught Mexican  history, Spanish history, African history and Chinese history to the abandonment  of learning about the struggles and successes of their own land. We don’t teach  Irish, Italian or Greek history in Massachusetts public schools as a  requirement, do we? Of course not. Young people should learn about different  world cultures, but not at the expense of neglecting the fundamentals of the  American experience.

In 2009, the state’s Department of Education, upon first agreeing to  establish an MCAS history exam, backtracked, saying the $2.4 million  implementation cost was problematic. Today, in 2012, the proposal still sits on  the back-burner as Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester and Education  Secretary Paul Reville spend millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top  funds for other “visionary” and somewhat untested uses.

Isn’t it time to do the right thing and make an investment where it will  count — teaching students to become productive citizens?

A recent independent poll commissioned by the Pioneer Institute found that  state legislators (64 percent), teachers (63 percent) and parents (59 percent)  agree that an MCAS history exam should be established. And by overwhelming  margins, ranging from 88 percent to 97 percent, all three groups agree that  every Massachusetts public school student should study our nation’s founding and  history. They see the need. Why don’t Chester and Reville see it?

We’ll leave you with this thought and a comment: Massachusetts is one of nine  states that doesn’t require students to study U.S. history. How can we be a  leader in learning with such a dubious distinction?

Also seen in Lowell Sun Online.