Thomas Jefferson once said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Yet today too many students are undereducated about the story of the United States, the principles which have guided us for 235 years, and the rich history that has made America an exceptional nation.
Recently, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), issued by the Department of Education, released its findings on the state of civic education among U.S. students – and the results are disturbing. According to the study, only 12 percent of high-school seniors, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 20 percent of fourth graders qualified as proficient in history. Shockingly, only 35% of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, while most could not name two reasons why Abraham Lincoln was important. This level of basic civic illiteracy is not only harmful to their education; it is harmful to the fabric of America.
As Americans, we celebrate July 4 as the day we became a nation. But the Fourth should be more than a party; it should also be a day of commemoration and education. And considering how little U.S. students understand their own history, families across America should take some time this Fourth of July to tell their children the story of America.
But how? For starters, inspiring your children to learn U.S. history depends greatly on their ages. While David McCullough is one of America’s great historians and storytellers, giving one of his books to your fourth grader probably won’t do much. But for high school seniors, it’s a different matter.
With that in mind, here are some examples that each family can do together this July 4 to make the day more meaningful than enjoying a day at the beach, a barbecue, or the day we don’t all have to go to work:
For elementary school children:
1. Choose for your child a figure from American history – say, one of the Founding Fathers – and have them do some basic research on the internet and report to you what they discover.
2. Ask them to write 50 words about why we celebrate July 4.
3. Have them telephone or e-mail one of their teachers to say thank you for devoting his or her life to teaching children.
For junior high school children:
1. Ask them to pick a song from American history – say, the Star-Spangled Banner or Yankee Doodle – and explain its historical significance. In my book, In Tune With America: Our History in Song, I have compiled dozens of songs meaningful to our history.
2. Read the Declaration of Independence with them and spend a little time afterward discussing its importance and significance to our founding.
3. Ask them to write 100 words about why it’s important for Americans to vote in elections.
For high school students:
1. Have them pick one Constitutional Amendment or Article and explain its history and significance to our government.
2. Provide a list of books on American history and ask them to choose one to read over the summer.
3. Ask them to write a letter to your Congressman explaining their views on a topic they’ve researched or care about – say, the quality of their public education.
These suggestions are simple ways we as parents can instill in our children an appreciation and love for America. We cannot just assume that the schools are going to do the job – and as the NAEP study concludes, they most clearly are not.
But that also means we need to find creative ways to educate our children about American history. It’s hard to break through a child’s normal preoccupations, especially today. With the Internet, iPods, video games and the old stand-by television, a parent’s job is more difficult than ever. Whether these suggestions appeal to your family, or whether they simply get you thinking about American history, it’s our responsibility to pass on the story of our country to the next generation.
George Nethercutt, a former congressman from Washington and founder and chairman of the George Nethercutt Foundation, is the author of "In Tune With America: Our History in Song."