Sanitized History Is Boring History

By Stephen Preskill

The National Assessment of Education Progress, often referred to as the gold standard of standardized tests, indicated that American students at all levels are alarmingly ignorant of the most basic facts of our own history.

Only 20 percent of 4th graders, and a shockingly low 12 percent of high school seniors, showed proficiency on the history exam. Most 4th graders could not explain why Abraham Lincoln was significant. And only a tiny percentage of students could identify what Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case, was about.


The conclusion is inescapable that the vast majority of students possess virtually no knowledge of history.

As a long-time educator and follower of educational trends, I am not at all surprised by these results. There has never been a time when American high school students have done well on history examinations. And, according to surveys conducted periodically since 1943 by the New York Times, there is every reason to believe that the level of historical knowledge among Americans of all age groups, not just school-aged children, is abysmal.

I believe that James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” has the most plausible answer for why we don’t know our own history: History is not retained or understood because it’s almost always taught in a boring way — and the reason it’s boring has everything to do with the half-truths and outright lies we tell about it.

Is it really surprising that students don’t know about the Brown case when so many teachers provide them with so little historical context for understanding what a dramatic step forward that case represented? Why should our students know who Lincoln was when we so frequently withhold from them what a wily politician he was, or how far he progressed in his understanding of slavery and race during the course of the Civil War?

Unlike a good movie about real life that is often interesting because all the boring parts have been taken out, we tend to teach history in high school with all the boring parts left in and all the really fascinating material removed so as to not to offend anyone.

This has been true for decades. Our history text books bored students to death for most of the 20th century because everything controversial about American life — including racism, sexism, cultural genocide and overwhelming social and economic inequities — has been omitted.

If we ever find the courage to tell the true and often tragic story of American history, our students will sit up, take notice and learn. In the meantime, don’t expect change any time soon. Social studies is famous for being the most boring subject in school, and so it will remain as long as its textbooks and its teachers are unable to face up to the gut-wrenching but arresting truths about our history.

Stephen Preskill is the chairman of the Education Department at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y., a U.S. News & World Report Top 25 regional university.

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