When only 39% of North Carolinians are able to pass a simple multiple-choice test on key facts in American history, is it really the time to slash the number of U.S. history classes required in high school?
Earlier this month, the North Carolina State Board of Education revised high school graduation requirements, making way for a new financial literacy class by cutting U.S. history requirements by 50%. Yes, financial literacy is important for those soon to enter the workforce.
But at a time when both knowledge of history facts and understanding of history’s impact is more important than it has ever been, is it prudent to dramatically reduce learning expectations for North Carolina students?
In 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation conducted a poll of 41,000 Americans, including 1,000 in North Carolina. As part of this poll, we asked 20 American history questions that are found on the practice exams for the U.S. citizenship test. A passing grade requires answering at least 12 questions correctly. Less than 40% of North Carolinians passed.
Only 71% knew that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Just 13% knew when the Constitution was written. As a bonus question, only 70% knew about the Wright Brothers’ flight in North Carolina.
The results in North Carolina were even more startling when broken down. Only 21% — one in five — of those under the age of 45 received a passing grade on this basic U.S. history test.
Seeking to better understand why we collectively know so little about our own history, the foundation followed up with a national survey of high school students, exploring their preferences and opinions on American history instruction. Less than a third, nationally, said social studies would be important to them after graduation, with only the arts being seen as holding less value. Half of those students surveyed believe American history knowledge is very important in helping understand current events and being a responsible citizen.
If only 21% of North Carolinians under the age of 45 was able to read at an eighth-grade level, we would declare a state educational emergency. Yet in the face of these numbers in U.S. history knowledge and appreciation, our response is to cut high school history requirements by 50%?
North Carolina has long been a leader in STEM education, recognizing the importance of science and math skills for the growth and success of the Research Triangle. If North Carolina is to be a political bellwether for our nation, shouldn’t we make meaningful commitments to ensuring that American history is taught, that history is understood, and that the lessons of history are applied to the issues and discussions of today and tomorrow?
This shouldn’t be an either/or question for North Carolina high schools. We should be teaching fiscal literacy. We should be teaching civic education. And we should be teaching American history.
Rather than cutting back our commitment to U.S. history learning in North Carolina, we should be asking how we can make history learning more interesting and more relevant to students today and tomorrow. If we are truly committed “to be, rather than to seem,” we must re-commit to the teaching of U.S. history. North Carolina cannot be without knowing and understanding of our past and its implications for the future.