7 Score and 10 Years Ago

How the Common Core Standards Can Help U.S. Students Understand History

The majority of American students don’t know when the Civil War occurred. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, we should rededicate ourselves to civic education.

11.19.13 6:40 PM ET

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the most eloquent speech in American history and probably the most essential document with regard to understanding the nation’s continued struggle to live up to its founding ideals.

Sadly, a recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reveals that 83 percent of recent college graduates could not identify “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as a phrase from the Gettysburg Address. Another recent survey, conducted by Common Core, an education advocacy group, found that 57 percent of the nation’s 17-year-olds weren’t able to place the Civil War within the correct 50-year time period.

These are tragic statistics. After all, any meaningful discussion of history, policy, or politics cannot take place if students don’t know when the seminal event in American history took place. But, there are a few hopeful developments in primary and secondary education that may reverse the national decline in civic knowledge.

One hopeful development is the Common Core State Standards, which have been voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Although the standards focus solely on English and math, the English standards call for students to analyze and understand some of the foundational documents of American history, including the Gettysburg Address. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit devoted to improving history education, has a new Common-Core-aligned “Teaching Literacy through History” program that helps teachers expose students to these documents in a substantive way. Lesley Herrmann, executive director of Gilder Lehrman, noted in a panel discussion last week that teachers are hungry for good content with which to implement the Common Core. In fact, the organization’s website is receiving over 80,000 visits each week.

But there’s no reason for schools to stop at the Common Core requirements. State and local departments of education could take other steps to improve students’ knowledge of American history. They could emulate states such as South Carolina, California, and Massachusetts, which have highly regarded and content-rich history standards. They could also ensure that teachers have a deep knowledge of the subject that they are teaching by mandating that history teachers have bachelor’s degrees in history or can pass a difficult licensure test like the one that Massachusetts uses.

Another very basic improvement would be to give more “time on task” to U.S. history. Currently, students in most states take “social studies”—which is really a catch-all for many subjects—in lower grades but only one real U.S. history class in high school.

A new organization, CitizenshipFirst, which was founded to foster innovation in civics education, proposes that students must pass the basic U.S. citizenship exam before they graduate high school or qualify for a Pell Grant. CitizenshipFirst was created to develop the ideas outlined in Teaching America, a book of essays from notable figures including Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Senators Jon Kyl and Bob Graham that make the case for improved civic education. It was published in 2011 and edited by Wall Street Journal reporter David Feith.

In his introduction, Feith notes the increasing civic discord of our time and that citizens lacking civic education “are, in crucial respects, disenfranchised. They are not part of American’s civic culture, and they often view its political, social, and economic systems with contempt. In discussing politics, they often characterize their opponents as evil, not just wrong. Such incivility goes hand in hand with a lack of historical and moral perspective—the kind shown by Americans of all stripes who poison political debate by regularly accusing rivals of being latter-day Stalins or Hitlers.”

Although he had little formal education, Lincoln knew how important a well-educated populace was to national unity and the proper functioning of a democratic republic. In his very first published political announcement, in 1832, during his first (failed) run for the Illinois general assembly, the 23-year-old Lincoln declared: “Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.” In 1838, he ended a speech with a warning that the republic’s survival depends on improved “general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.”

As Lincoln suggested, the woefully inadequate civic education being imparted to many students should be considered a threat to national survival. If we are to be Americans and not just a group of 300 million people who happen to share the same landmass, it’s important that we know who we are and from where we’ve come; the mistakes we’ve made; the triumphs we’ve shared; the values and principles that have guided our nation for well over two centuries; and our liberties and those who fought to preserve them.

We need to ensure that today’s young people know the great saga of American history so that America’s spirit and ideals live on well into the future—and that our nation remains, as Lincoln once said, the “last best hope” for all mankind. Let us use the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address to rededicate ourselves to this solemn purpose.