By Greg Toppo
Big Brother. McCarthyism. The patience of Job.
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 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.
"If you think it matters whether or not kids have common historical touchstones and whether, at some level, we feel like members of a common culture, then familiarity with this knowledge matters a lot," says American Enterprise Institute researcher Rick Hess, who wrote the study.
Among 1,200 students surveyed:
•43% knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.
•52% could identify the theme of 1984.
•51% 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.
"School has emphasized Martin Luther King, and everybody teaches it, and people are learning it," says Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. "What a better thing it would be if people also had the Civil War part and the civil rights part, and the Harriet Tubman part and the Uncle Tom's Cabin part."
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.
"Not all is woe in American education," says Trevor Packer of The College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement.
The study's release today in Washington also serves as a sort of coming out for its sponsor, Common Core, a new non-partisan group pushing for the liberal arts in public school curricula. Its leadership includes a North Carolina fifth-grade teacher, an author of history and science textbooks, a teachers union leader and a former top official in the George H.W. Bush administration.