Teens Losing Touch With Common Cultural and Historical References

Greg Toppo, USA TODAY, February 26, 2008

Don’t count on your typical teenager to nod knowingly the next time you drop a reference to any of these. A study out today [by Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute] finds that about half of 17-year-olds can’t identify the books or historical events associated with them.

Twenty-five years after the federal report A Nation at Risk challenged U.S. public schools to raise the quality of education, the study finds high schoolers still lack important historical and cultural underpinnings of “a complete education.” And, its authors fear, the nation’s current focus on improving basic reading and math skills in elementary school might only make matters worse, giving short shrift to the humanities—even if children can read and do math.

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Among 1,200 students surveyed:

* 43% knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.

* could identify the theme of 1984.

* knew that the controversy surrounding Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism.

In all, students earned a C in history and an F in literature, though the survey suggests students do well on topics schools cover. For instance, 88% knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor led the USA into World War II, and 97% could identify Martin Luther King Jr. as author of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Fewer (77%) knew Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end slavery a century earlier.

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The findings probably won’t sit well with educators, who say record numbers of students are taking college-level Advanced Placement history, literature and other courses in high school.

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