Don't Know Much About History

June 1, 2006
Jeffrey J. Crow Ph.D. '74

Jeffrey J. Crow Ph.D. '74

 

In his recent book, True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civic Nationalism, Noah Pickus, the associate director of Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics, documents the perennial national angst that seems to bloom among natives whenever a new wave of immigration rises to a record level. Pickus points out how, in policy debates, we eagerly revisit the rules, including what would-be citizens should know to pass the test for full citizenship.

Yet there is at least one related discussion that we have not had as a nation: namely, what a poor job our schools have been doing in recent decades in educating native-born Americans about their own rights and responsibilities. This, at a time when low voter turnout, and the erosion of community ties, civic institutions, and social trust point to an overall decline in the value that native-born Americans place on their birthright citizenship.

Civic illiteracy, as it is called, is the province of author and historian Jeffrey J. Crow Ph.D. '74. As deputy secretary of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, he often speaks to groups about the dangerous decline of the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture in both K-12 and college classrooms. In one study, says Crow, 40 percent of seniors in America's top fifty-five colleges and universities could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century.

Fifty-six percent of seniors were unable to identify the Constitution as the document establishing the division of powers in the United States. Moreover, says Crow, an American Council of Trustees and Alumni report released last September found that none of the nation's top fifty colleges and universities requires students to study American history, and only 10 percent require students to study history at all.