(Black) History Matters

The words 'black history' written on a chalkboard

The words 'black history' written on a chalkboard
At a recent meeting of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School Board, a number of concerned parents rose to speak in favor of making African American history a mandatory course of study. Said Destiny Blackwell, “If we’re not teaching Black history, we are complicitly allowing it to disappear.” I agree with Ms. Blackwell’s assessment, however, the problem isn’t that Americans don’t know much about Black history – the problem is that we don’t know much about ANY history.

In February of this year, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (WWNFF) released the disturbing results of a new survey in which only 27% of folks under the age of 45 demonstrated a basic knowledge of American history. Of the 41,000 adults surveyed, only 15% knew what year our Constitution was written, and only 25% knew that free speech was protected by that great document. Said WWNFF President Arthur Levine, “Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens.” His conclusion comes as no surprise to those of us who have been tracking the problem for years.

In 2015, for example, Smithsonian.com’s Saba Naseem reported on a survey by Texas Tech University in which students were asked a series of basic history questions. Many respondents thought the South had won the Civil War, and hardly anyone knew who our vice president was. Naseem also re-hashed a 2014 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which found that a mere 18% of 8th graders “were proficient in US history.” Then there was the 2008 survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute which reported that only half of American adults could name the three branches of government. And if you really want to get depressed, then take a few moments to watch a video by PragerU.com, in which millennials were interviewed about their knowledge of American history. Asked who our 16th president was, hardly any of the respondents knew it was Abraham Lincoln. This is particularly disturbing because they were interviewed in front of the Lincoln Memorial which they had just visited.

As a graduate of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County school system, I am saddened that today’s parents are even having to lobby for an expanded history curriculum. Granted we’re talking 60 years ago, but by the time I was in third grade, I could name the three branches of government and knew that honest Abe was our 16th president. I knew about the educational and agricultural contributions of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, respectively. And though I couldn’t recite the purpose behind all of its amendments, I knew that the Constitution allowed me the freedom to speak my mind.

Last week, a group of parents spoke their minds, and I hope that their words will resonate well beyond Forsyth County. No, I don’t think we need a mandatory course on Black history, or White history, or Asian history. Those are classes that can be offered on the post-secondary level. What we need, though, is a more comprehensive and inclusive American history curriculum beginning in the primary grades, and continuing on into high school. We simply can’t afford to turn out another generation of uninformed citizens.

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