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'Growing historical ignorance' among teens a myth, scholar says


Six in 10 high school students lack even a basic knowledge of American history, according to results from the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test nicknamed the "Nation's Report Card."

Despite public hand-wringing over the supposed ignorance of today's youth, education Professor Sam Wineburg argues in the March issue of The Journal of American History that American students have always performed dismally on history tests designed to gauge factual knowledge. Back in 1917, 1,500 Texas teens sitting for the first large-scale test fared just as poorly, while tests in 1943, 1976, 1987 and 1994 produced similar results.

"A sober look at a century of history testing provides no evidence for the 'gradual disintegration of cultural memory' or a 'growing historical ignorance,'" Wineburg writes in the article titled "Crazy for History." "The only thing growing seems to be our amnesia of past ignorance."

Although the composition of students attending high school during the last century has broadened from an elite to near-universal enrollment, test results of today's teens compare with those of their forebears ­ hovering around the 40- to 50-percent mark. "The world has turned upside down in the last 100 years," Wineburg writes, "but students' ignorance of history has marched stolidly in place." The professor argues that a rigged system is to blame: "Kids look dumb on history tests because the system conspires to make them look dumb."

Since the 1930s, Wineburg explains, assessors have relied on the multiple-choice test to rank students according to a symmetrical bell curve, rather than examining them to determine whether they have gained a particular level of knowledge. The best way to ensure that most students land on the bell's curve is to include a few questions that only the best students get right, a few questions that most get right, and a majority of questions that between 40 to 60 percent get right. "Items that deviate from this profile are dropped," Wineburg writes. "In other words, only the questions that array students in a neatly shaped bell curve make it to the final version of the test," whether or not they teach anything meaningful.

Wineburg said he wrote the article partly to expose what he considers the "fundamental evil of multiple-choice testing" to an audience of non-statisticians. In general, he says, historians' "eyes glaze over" when panel discussions turn to psychometric analysis of standardized multiple-choice tests. By failing to participate in this debate, historians cede all power over test content to the statisticians. As a result, "It is modern psychometrics in the driver's seat, not sound historical judgment," he writes.

Boring classes

Students also fail to learn history because the subject is so poorly taught, Wineburg argues. In a 1994 national survey, 1,500 adults were asked to "pick one word or phrase to describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school." "Boring" was the most frequent answer.

Bland textbooks stuffed with dry facts dominate instruction in today's high schools because many social studies teachers lack adequate subject-matter knowledge, Wineburg explains. Unlike English or math teachers, more than 80 percent of today's history teachers did not study that discipline in depth in college. "I believe you can't teach what you don't know," he says. "I don't think there's any rocket science here. This notion that somehow a good teacher can teach anything is the biggest canard in the world."

While graduate schools of education offer courses on "teaching mathematics" and "teaching science," history instruction is thrown into a mishmash called "teaching social studies," Wineburg says. Over the years, social studies has "morphed into a catch-basin for every single social fad. [It] has lost its compass," he says. "When you embrace everything, you embrace nothing." A social studies teacher may be a psychology or child development major, despite the fact that almost every high school offers courses on American and world history. In Pennsylvania, Wineburg notes, an adult is qualified to teach high school American history having last studied the subject in the seventh grade.

In contrast to lax teaching requirements, higher and higher standards are being demanded of high school students. In the late 1980s, California changed the name of its high school social studies curriculum to history/social science. "That was revolutionary," Wineburg says. To mirror this change, when Wineburg joined the School of Education faculty in 2002, Stanford became the first university in the country to change the name of its social studies course to "Teaching History/Social Science."

Today, students in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) know they need to have studied some history before taking Wineburg's course. "If people haven't studied history seriously at the undergraduate level and they have this stereotypical notion that history is boring, and it's all facts and it's all known ­ this dead chronicle that you've got to get kids to commit to memory ­ they will perpetuate such attitudes to a future generation of students," he says. "If you don't understand that history is argument and clashing interpretations, and have a firmament of knowledge to depend on, you're going to resort to this form of instruction."

Wineburg wants high school history instruction to dump the minutiae scored in multiple-choice tests and return to core notions that help students construct a usable narrative that can inform their understanding of contemporary affairs. "When the majority of kids leaving school cannot date the Civil War and are confused about whether the Korean War predated or followed World War II, how far do we want to go on insisting [they] know about the battle at Fort Wagner, Young-hill Kang's East Goes West ..." he asks, referring to questions found on standardized tests.

In a footnote, Wineburg notes that even professional historians do poorly outside their research specialization. In a 1991 study, Wineburg found that when historians trained at Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard answered questions from a leading high school textbook, they scored a mere 35 percent ­ in some cases lower than a comparison group of high school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. History. "Technology may have changed since 1917, but the capacity of the human mind to retain information has not," he writes.

Wineburg concludes that psychologists define a crazy person as someone who keeps doing the same thing but expects a different result: "As long as textbooks dominate instruction, as long as the ETS [Educational Testing Service] dictates the history American children should know, as long as states continue to play a 'mine-is-bigger-than-yours' standards game for students while hiding from view content-free teacher standards, as long as historians roll over and play dead in front of number-wielding psychometricians, we can have all the blue-ribbon commissions in the world but the results will be the same."

Sam Wineburg

History Cooperative
Wineburg's faculty profile