Historical Fiction

, Kristen Blair, Leave a comment

“What’s past is prologue.”
These words, from William Shakespeare’s play, The
, affirm that history sets the stage for what’s yet
to come. The patterns of the past are, as the Bard wrote,
inextricably intertwined with the future.

But what if
we can’t recall the seminal events and dates of history? Of
what use is the past in a society focused intensively on 21st
century skills? Actually, history and our knowledge of it
matter a great deal, according to Common Core, a new liberal arts advocacy
group. In Common Core’s study, Still At Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even
(.pdf), released last week, author Frederick Hess
writes, “In profound and essential ways, our civic health and
national cohesion depend on our ability to familiarize the
rising generation with the touchstones of our shared history
and culture.”

Unfortunately, our collective history is
unfamiliar to many American high schoolers. Responses to
Common Core’s questionnaire (.pdf), put to 1,200
17-year-olds, paint a startling portrait of teenage historical
and literary ignorance. In numerous cases, adolescent
recollections more closely resemble fiction than fact.

Consider some of the report’s findings. One-third of
students did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees
freedom of speech and religion. Only 60 percent correctly
identified when World War I took place. More than one-fourth
of students thought Columbus sailed the ocean blue after 1750.
And almost a quarter of teenagers didn’t know who Adolf Hitler
was; 10 percent thought he was a “munitions

Student responses also revealed wide
gaps in literary knowledge. Just 38 percent knew Chaucer wrote
the Canterbury Tales. Slightly more than half
accurately identified the premise of George Orwell’s novel,
1984. Only 50 percent equated the Job of the Bible with
patience in suffering.

There is a bit of good news.
Ninety-seven percent of students knew that Martin Luther King,
Jr. delivered the oratorical triumph, “I Have a Dream.”
Eighty-two percent accurately linked President Abraham Lincoln
with the Emancipation Proclamation. But many of these same
students were still unaware of the historical and cultural
contexts surrounding these events: almost six in 10 didn’t
know when the Civil War took place, even though the Emancipation Proclamation (famously
referenced by Dr. King at the beginning of his “Dream” speech) was issued in 1863 by Lincoln in the
midst of the Civil War.

Why are students so ignorant
of history and literature? Common Core trustees Diane Ravitch
and Antonia Cortese suggest our testing “mania,” fueled by
federal No Child Left Behind legislation has “narrowed
the curriculum,” crowding out history and the arts in favor of
tested subjects like reading and math. A report (.pdf) released two weeks ago by the
Center on Education Policy affirms that
since 2002, school districts have increased time spent on
reading and math at the elementary level, leaving fewer hours
for science, social studies, and art.

Clearly, what we
test affects what we teach. But that’s not an argument for
more tests; rather, we should test more efficiently. In North
Carolina, that means doing away with state exams in favor of
an independent, nationally normed achievement test covering
multiple subjects. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen
soon. The state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Testing and
Accountability, while advocating fewer state tests in their
final January 2008 report (.pdf), could not agree to implement
a nationally normed referenced test.

We also need
richer academic content. Educator E.D. Hirsch has promoted
this message for years. In a Washington Post op-ed several weeks ago, Professor Hirsch
said, our “how-to conception of reading has caused schools to
spend a lot of unproductive time on trivial content…and less
time on history, science and the arts.” Reading content ought
to be steeped in historical or scientific subject matter. We
should also encourage students to read great literature,
savoring the timeless works of writing titans like Dickens,
Melville, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Because when it comes to
fiction, that’s the kind they ought to know.

Kristin Blair is a fellow at the North Carolina Education Alliance This article originally appeared in The K-12 Update that she assembles for the NCEA.