It’s that least wonderful time of the year: every other spring, as flowers bloom, the National Center for Education Statistics releases the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This series of standardized tests is administered biannually to a representative sampling of American students at three benchmark grade levels—fourth, eighth, and twelfth—to determine their performance in several subject areas.
The results for 2022, which were released in early May, registered a steep decline in eighth-graders’ knowledge and comprehension of history and civics. Only an abysmal 13 percent of students rated as “proficient” in history, while just 22 percent reached proficiency in civics.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona tried to blame the poor showing on the pandemic, a lack of funding for schools, and “censorship,” but the plain fact is that classes in history and civics are disappearing. Only seven states require civics instruction at any time up to eighth grade, and it is almost exclusively Republican state lawmakers who advocate such a requirement, usually over ferocious Democratic opposition. Just 49 percent of eighth-graders report having taken a civics class, while 68 percent had taken a U.S. history class. The history figure may seem more encouraging, but it still means that nearly one-third of American eighth-graders have never been taught the history of their country in any methodical way, while more than half haven’t had any classes in how American government functions.
For those who have taken such courses, the content is often lackluster. A study by the RAND Corporation found that in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, only 32 percent of social studies teachers in public high schools believed that it was “absolutely essential” to “know facts” such as the locations of the 50 states or the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That figure registered only a slight decline from the 36 percent who thought so in RAND’s 2010 study. The drop was much steeper, however, when educators were asked how important it was “to be knowledgeable about periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War”—that is, more general subjects and interpretive trends. While 63 percent thought so in 2010, by 2019 the figure had fallen to just 43 percent.
If our nation’s teachers de-emphasize factual knowledge, it should come as no surprise that students’ history NAEP scores plummet.
On the civics side, the picture is nearly as bleak. Only 53 percent of social studies teachers in 2019 believed it essential to understand such bedrock constitutional principles as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances, compared with 64 percent who thought so in 2010. Some 65 percent of social studies teachers still believed it important to teach their students about the protections guaranteed by the Constitution (down from 83 percent nine years earlier). While still relatively high, that number yields a depressing 35 percent who would exclude our most basic and foundational civil rights from essential classroom learning.
The slide in history and civics mirrors what has happened in our colleges and universities, which are responsible for training K–12 teachers in those subjects. Once a bastion of unassailable empiricism and scholarly rigor, the academic humanities as taught in the United States—including history and civics—have taken a nosedive. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of history majors fell by some 50 percent, following a gentler but steady decline over the previous 30 years. Unsurprisingly, that pre-pandemic decade corresponds with the increasing presence on campus of identity politics, Marxist rhetoric that reduces history to a struggle between oppressors and the oppressed, and other ideological innovations that discourage all but the most aggrieved students from engaging these subjects.
Data clearly bear out this analysis. According to the 2019 RAND survey, social studies teachers placed the highest educational value on being “tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves,” with 80 percent finding this “absolutely essential” and 92 percent feeling “confident” that their students would master that characteristic by graduation. In 2022, some 54 percent of teachers identified “conflict resolution” as the “most important aim” of civics education, with a worrisome 27 percent naming environmental activism and 20 percent “reducing racism” as the objective of civics instruction.
Non-majors have little difficulty avoiding such subjects in the pursuit of more practical and remunerative degrees. According to a 2016 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only 18 percent of colleges and universities require even a single semester of American history, meaning that millions of college-educated parents also have little or no knowledge of history and civics to pass on to their children.
Attempts to change this state of affairs provoke fierce opposition. In April, when North Carolina’s legislature moved to establish a one-semester civics requirement in state institutions, 673 faculty members at the flagship University of North Carolina signed an open letter protesting what they characterized as an attempt “to violate the principles of academic freedom and shared governance.” The self-perpetuating and largely unaccountable accreditation authorities also went to work, suggesting that the course—as well as a nonpartisan civics studies center suggested earlier in the year—could prompt the revocation of accredited status from North Carolina schools. The proposed course’s reading list includes, among other texts, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. These are all materials that should turn up on NAEP history and civics tests, but they could also raise questions about why an academic establishment given to illiberal ideologies might see robust public knowledge of U.S. history and civics as a threat. It might be no surprise that the open letter’s co-author, UNC history professor Jay Smith, is a specialist on royal absolutism under France’s Old Regime.