Skip to main content

America's students failing to learn history

By Callista Gingrich, Special to CNN
October 8, 2013 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
The iconic image of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776, based on a painting by Emanuel Leutze.
The iconic image of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776, based on a painting by Emanuel Leutze.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Callista Gingrich: Tests show a failure to teach students American history
  • She says few fourth-graders understand significance of George Washington
  • Most children eager to learn and will respond if adults are enthusiastic about history, she says

(CNN) -- It's vital that young Americans learn the history of our amazing nation.

Being an American requires knowing what it means to be an American. It's the fabric that binds us together and helps us understand who we are.

Today, unfortunately, many of our students are failing to learn American history, including our founding principles and values. And they're failing to learn why America remains an exceptional nation.

Callista Gingrich
Callista Gingrich

For two generations, we've watched our nation's memory of the past slip away.

The problem of historic amnesia is widespread, as evidenced by alarming results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students in grades four, eight and 12 in several broad subject areas every few years.

Among the survey's most frightening findings is our students' lack of knowledge in U.S. history. Just 20% of fourth-graders, 17% of eighth-graders and 12% of 12th-graders were at grade-level proficiency in American history in the 2010 exams.

This lack of knowledge goes to the very basics.

Only one in three fourth-graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than half understood why George Washington was an important American leader. And a majority of fourth-graders didn't know why the Pilgrims left England.

These are frightening statistics, indicating that our children lack an understanding of our nation's history and the traits that have made America great.

Callista Gingrich publishes 3rd book
The Gingriches and elephants

As the author of three children's books on American history, I've visited many classrooms across the country to share the adventures of Ellis the Elephant, my time-traveling pachyderm, with children ages 4 to 8. I've found most young students to be energetic, enthusiastic and eager to learn.

We can get children engaged in learning at an early age if we as adults have enthusiasm for learning as well.

Our history includes wonderful role models. In writing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (published this week, in which Ellis the Elephant discovers the American Revolution), I was reminded that the brave men and women who fought to win our freedom were surprisingly young. Thomas Jefferson was 33. James Madison was 25. James Monroe was just 18, barely older than a high-school graduate. And yet these patriotic heroes were engaged in profound, often dangerous work. They were models of sacrifice, civic-mindedness and determination.

With education surveys showing dismal results, we must find creative ways to teach our children American history. In "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and the Ellis the Elephant series, my goal is to highlight the wonderful achievements of our country, to arouse a love for America and to communicate why America is indeed a special nation.

Like children's books, educational video games, too, have enormous potential to make history come alive. And we are only beginning to see the potential of online systems like Khan Academy to revolutionize learning. There are many ways to improve the challenged state of education, but parents, teachers and mentors must pursue them eagerly.

It was 232 years ago this month, on October 19, 1781, that the British surrendered to George Washington's Continental Army at Yorktown. This pivotal moment concluded an eight-year war in which thousands of brave men and women gave their lives to win the freedom we enjoy today. Yet we are for the first time in our history beginning to lose sight of our founders' sacrifice and wisdom. We must fight historical amnesia to ensure that future generations continue to appreciate the greatness of our nation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Callista Gingrich.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT