Skip to main content

America's students failing to learn history

By Callista Gingrich, Special to CNN
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Tue October 8, 2013
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
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT