What Happened to the Teaching of History in American Schools?

Nation feels impact of decades-old decision to prioritize skills-based learning and dismiss knowledge

In 2014, a female college student majoring in journalism at Texas Tech University was hired to walk around her college campus and ask her fellow students some basic questions about American history and government.

Really basic.

One was, “Who won the Civil War?”

Most of the students seen on the video could not answer this question.

“Like, the one in 1965 or … What civil war?” one student asked, smiling.

“Who was even in it?” a student asked, giggling.

Do you support individual military members being able to opt out of getting the COVID vaccine?

By completing the poll, you agree to receive emails from LifeZette, occasional offers from our partners and that you've read and agree to our privacy policy and legal statement.

“Who was in it? Just tell me who was in it,” her friend said.

Another student’s answer: “America.”

Another one: “We did. The South.”

Another one: “The Confederates.”

Another one: “I have no clue.”

When the video went viral, the student who’d been hired to ask the questions, Courtney Plunk, was harassed and derided by other students.

The video from Texas Tech and another from George Mason University, both for an organization called PoliTech, offered a rare glimpse into the reality of education in America.

[lz_third_party align=center includes=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRZZpk_9k8E]

There was no mistaking it. Right before our eyes was all we need to know about what American schools have produced — people who don’t really know anything at all, and aren’t in the least bit ashamed of it.

What Happened?
You have to go back to the 1930s, to what Diane Ravitch described in her 1985 book, “The Schools We Deserve,” as the “heated pedagogical battles between progressive educators and traditionalists” then taking place. The progressive educators won, and over the three decades that followed, they threw out the traditional public school curriculum, which had included a rigorous study of American and world history and also the study of Latin, and often ancient Greek, in high school.

More fundamentally — they abandoned the idea that the job of schools is to transmit knowledge.

This seems on its face like a ridiculous statement. If a teacher is not transmitting knowledge to students, then what could be taking place in American classrooms? Well, yes. What, indeed?

If you’ve toured schools over the last few decades, and talked to teachers and principals, you’ve probably heard them talk a lot about “skills-based” and “inquiry-based” learning and about educating the “whole child.” Parents normally nod along at these seemingly non-offensive descriptions, but some notice that what is not discussed is knowledge — what body of knowledge will be taught to their children.

If the parents think to ask the very straightforward question of what their child will be learning at the school, the teacher or principal will usually struggle to answer, and in fact, cannot answer in most cases — as there is usually no defined body of knowledge being taught.

E.D. Hirsch, who has stood almost alone among academics in his criticism of knowledge-free education, described in his 1996 book, “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them,” his shock at realizing the depth of hostility to knowledge among American teachers and principals.

The deep aversion to and contempt for factual knowledge that pervade the thinking of American educators was at first so paradoxical and difficult for an outsider like me to understand or believe that it took me many years to appreciate it. It is not too much to say that an antiknowledge attitude is the defining element in the worldview of many early-childhood educators and reformers. Only gradually have I come to realize that this deeply-dyed sentiment has been a powerful cause of our educational failings — as serious in its ultimate effects as any other single cause.

He goes on to relate an experience speaking at a conference of educators. In a breakout session, he was asked whether he had enjoyed writing resource books for elementary-aged children. He replied that he had. Then he was asked what he found most interesting about the experience. And he replied that he was excited to come to an understanding of the relationship between the earth and the sun during a year’s orbit.

“Then, from another quarter, a dash of cold water was thrown on this momentary enthusiasm when an educator asked me if I thought that tidbit of information had made me a better person,” he wrote.

This was followed by another question: Was he aware that it was “developmentally inappropriate” to teach first graders about the Eiffel Tower, as was recommended in the Core Knowledge curriculum that he had written?

Not one person in the audience, he wrote, rose to defend the teaching of facts to young children.

But what were the progressives trying to do?

It’s important to remember what was happening in the world in the 1930s, when progressives were raging against the traditional curriculum, and looking to supplant it with something much lighter. Twelve years before 1930, in 1918, communists, Marxists and socialists from around the world met to plot the overthrow of every government in the world, even democratically elected governments, to replace them with socialist or communist systems. It was called the Third International.

Following this meeting, socialist and communist political parties were founded in almost every country, and the great struggle of the past century ensued. America, of course, was always considered the great prize, and education, along with media and entertainment, were seen as the tools that could be used to gain control of it. The Left knew that through education, they could eventually bring America to its knees.

What’s Happening Now?
One of the great dangers for the United States now is that there are at least two generations that have had little history education.

“It’s been a long decline, and that makes it hard for people to realize what’s missing,” says Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars.

Wood points out that it was false information about the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville that started a discussion that ended in a riot with one dead, several others injured, and confederate statues torn down and vandalized across the country.

“The basis was a claim by UVA professors that the statue of Robert E. Lee was erected to intimidate black people” — a claim, he says, for which there was no evidence.

“A story that seems to lack any historical basis at all seems to have set off this catastrophe,” he told LifeZette.

“We’re getting a little clue here that education has something to do with this,” he said. “It’s college professors who have been driving this false narrative.”

College students and other young people who haven’t learned American history are easily conscripted to join a fight based on a lie.

“When you don’t study history, you are prey to people who have fictions to put in place of history,” said Wood.

In recent years, Wood has been involved in a fight with College Board, which administers the SAT, and also the Advanced Placement (AP) exams that increasing numbers of high school students are taking. The AP U.S. History test and the 2014 framework for teaching the course, says Wood, had completely omitted any information about the founding of the United States of America — important because the test, and what is on it, becomes the basis for what history is taught in many American high schools.

After the National Association of Scholars and other groups raised a stink, it was put back in, but only, says Wood, in the most superficial way.

But it’s also what is being taught that should raise alarms.

In 2012, Bill Korach, a former corporate executive who became an education researcher and activist after an experience with his son’s schools, worked on a review of 25 history textbooks used in American schools. He and his fellow researcher found them filled with passages presenting Islam as respectful of women and the teachings of Muhammed as being factual, while Judaism and Christianity were presented as mythical.

A textbook called “Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction” by publisher McDougal Littell (2005 edition) said: “Muhammad’s teachings, which are the revealed word of God … are found in the holy book called the Qur’an.”

But a journalistic distance is used when describing Christianity: “According to the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth was born around 6 to 4 B.C.” and, “According to Jesus’ followers, he rose from the dead….”

There is no “according to” when it comes to Islam.

In a textbook called “World History” (Pearson), used in schools across the country, there were four paragraphs devoted to Christianity, and four to Judaism, but 32 pages — an entire chapter — devoted to Islam, all of it describing Islam and Muslims in positive terms, with no mention of the limited rights accorded to women in Sunni Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive.

“Education has gone crazy, and people need to really wake up,” said Korach when reached by LifeZette last week.

He says he was stunned to find out in the 90s that his son was getting an earful of anti-white, anti-American teaching at his school in a ritzy suburb of Boston, and stunned to realize that the American exceptionalism that he remembered in history textbooks in his school days in the ’50s and early ’60s were no more.

The removal and desecration of historical statues in American cities, he says, is directly linked to what has happened to the teaching of history in American schools.

“It’s all of a piece,” he told LifeZette. “The younger people are being so thoroughly indoctrinated that they’ve all bought into this notion that Donald Trump and his followers are a bunch of racists.”

Korach has set out to found classical charter schools in several Florida counties, with history at the center of a rigorous, knowledge-rich curriculum taught by — not education majors — but history majors, literature majors, and philosophy majors.

He’s not the only one who has noticed what’s happened to the teaching of history in American schools, and set out to do something about it.

Lisa VanDamme was an A-student, but realized, in talking to her grandparents, that she had not been well-educated.

“Even in comparison to my most successful and talented peers, their education seemed not just different in degree,” she wrote, “but different in kind.”

Whereas I graduated from thirteen years of school, including AP History classes, unable to generate even a bare-bones outline of history or rough sketch of the map of Europe, I distinctly remember asking my grandmother about the historic split between the Protestant and Catholic churches, and being regaled with a story compelling in plot, rich with detail, and fraught with meaning. Whereas I graduated from thirteen years of school, including AP English classes, having read and superficially discussed only the stock list of American “classics” (Catcher in the Rye, East of Eden, The Great Gatsby, etc.), my grandparents had read Dickens, and Tolstoy, and Ibsen, and Hugo, and could recite a poem to suit every occasion. Whereas my peers and I could crank out a passable five-paragraph essay, my grandparents’ writing was impeccably grammatical, exquisitely eloquent, and deeply insightful. They possessed the knowledge, the wisdom, and the depth of soul of truly educated people. My peers and I possessed a diploma.

VanDamme went on to found VanDamme Academy, a private school in Orange County, California, that offers a rigorous education with a strong focus on history and literature.

Traditionalist movements, and parent groups, have frequently stood in the way of the progressive educators. The Great Books movement, started by Mortimer Adler in the 1950s, was a standout example, and the Great Books curriculum is still used in some schools today, with students reading together the very best, most classic works of literature at every grade level, and discussing them in a sort of book-group format.

But the general downward trend has continued, and accelerated.

It is thought that there are now a million copies of the radical, anti-American book by Howard Zinn called “The People’s History of the United States,” in use in American high schools, while the meticulously researched and beautifully written “A History of the American People,” by the British historian Paul Johnson, is not read in American schools.

At the college level, a study by the National Association of Scholars, “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics,” showed that state universities are now in the grasp of a movement called the new civics — in which students are required to participate in what amounts to left-wing political activism for college credit.

“What we call the ‘New Civics’ redefines civics as progressive political activism,” the authors of the report wrote. “Rooted in the radical program of the 1960s’ New Left, the New Civics presents itself as an up-to-date version of volunteerism and good works. Though camouflaged with soft rhetoric, the New Civics, properly understood, is an effort to repurpose higher education.”

The new civics isn’t confined to one or two courses. The goal of its proponents, says the NAS, is to build it into every college subject. There will be no avoiding it, even for the business or chemistry major.

“The New Civics has replaced the Old Civics, which fostered civic literacy. In consequence, American students’ knowledge about their institutions of self-government has collapsed,” the authors write.

But America is not even having a conversation about this calamity.


Standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind focus on reading and math testing in grades three to eight, and it is these scores that are studied by smart parents and by education researchers and journalists.

And traditional journalism has played almost no role in looking at what is being taught in the classroom and how, in particular as it pertains to history. In fact, rather than undertake a review of high school textbooks themselves, following the lead of citizen groups, they’ve written stories only of the meetings where citizen groups complain, without citing specific passages from textbooks, and usually giving the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) the last word.

[lz_related_box id=833256]

Paul Horton, a renowned history teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, says the answer is to scrap history textbooks, and to use real books to teach history. Like Korach and others, he believes — fervently — that what is happening in schools, the failure to teach history, in particular, is about more than “education” or “schools” per se, but the future of the country.

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their own history,” he wrote in a blog post on Education Week in 2013.

As statues fall and are desecrated in cities across the country — Baltimore, New Orleans, and Charlottesville, whose mayor said on Friday that he has changed his mind about the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the confederate general widely admired by both the North and the South for his humility in defeat and his work to heal the country following the Civil War, and will now support its removal — it appears this destruction is well underway.

Join the Discussion

Comments are currently closed.