In the US, eighth graders are periodically tested on their competence in math and other topics in what is known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), though informally known as the ‘nation’s report card.’ Math competence is vital, but for a properly functioning American democracy, so is a reasonable understanding of history and civics. The data show that competence in US history peaked in 2014 and has progressively declined, a trend that started before the pandemic but may have been accelerated by COVID. Knowledge of civics is also declining among eighth graders. Natalie Wexler wrote about this in Forbes three years ago. Calling the 2020 overall NAEP results “stark and inexcusable,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated, “students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas Debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights…” Now, the 2022 results have confirmed a continued worsening in history and civics scores, as fewer than 15% of eighth graders are considered competent in these topics.
In eighth grade back in 1965, I knew all about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but not because I was a genius in history. It was because one of the debates had been held on October 13, 1858, in my hometown, Quincy, IL. There is a large commemorative plaque on the site, and the event is sometimes spoken of in casual conversation. Many of us who grew up in Illinois learned a lot about Lincoln as part of our local culture.
Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist and pioneer town planner, is often credited with originating the phrase “Think globally, act locally.” Still, it occurred to me recently that his concept ought to be applied to US history and civics to aid our struggling students. Every locality in the US has its own fascinating, if sometimes obscure, history that is tied to the broader history of our nation and the world. One idea is that schools could produce brief documents about actual events and people who lived in the local community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Then in class, these supplements would be a window on national history and civics, making these topics more immediate and understandable. For the first time, students might see their family names linked with soldiers who fought in the Civil War, for example. Parents who know their family histories could work with teachers to help prepare those documents and even make quizzes or games for the students to play at school to help build competence.
I’m a physician and scientist, now retired, and as I cleaned out my deceased parents’ house, I found a trove of old papers and photos of my relatives who had lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I’m an amateur author, and I thought it would be fun to write a historical novel set in Quincy with mostly fictional characters but include a few of my actual ancestors. As I started writing, though, the opposite occurred. I found that my novel, Curious Exploits: A Family Seeks Success in Nineteenth-Century America, when completed, contained about two hundred actual people and only a few fictional characters.
It then occurred to me that I could do my own education experiment in my little hometown (population of about 39,000). I contacted the principals of both the public and Catholic high schools, the four Catholic elementary schools, and the public middle school to see if they would consider a three-step experiment as this school year was winding down: (1) a pre-read six-question history test, (2) a recommendation for seventh-grade and above students to read my e-novel (just a $2.99 expense for each student), and (3) a post-read six-question history test to be done in September with an additional question to determine by self-assessment if a given student read little, less than half, or more than half of the book. Each test would be printed on a single sheet of paper and have no identifying information except for the date and grade level. I asked the principals to have the sheets mailed to me in CT, and I volunteered to grade the tests and report the results to them privately. It could later be determined whether the results should be further communicated or published.
Interestingly, I found all these half-dozen principals willing to communicate by e-mail and willing to skim through a sample copy of the book. Still, without exception, they were somewhat cautious about implementing the experiment, though two were more enthusiastic. I’m now trying to gather information about why some seem reluctant to proceed. I also discovered that there are no summer reading programs recommended by any school. I’m told that this is due to the belief that few students will read. Frankly, I was quite surprised by the caution of the principals, and I hope to provide a status update in the future.
James Magner, MD, is an endocrinologist and scientist who has worked in academic medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. The author of five books and scores of scientific articles, he was an Eagle Scout and likes chess and poker. He lives with his wife in Connecticut.