Lauren Rabaino

Which U.S. president is linked with the Emancipation Proclamation? What were the “fireside chats”? What event led to the United States’ entrance into World War II?

Questions like these were asked to gauge 1,200 American high school-aged students’ retention of literature and historical knowledge in a study called “Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now.” The results were startling: more than ever before, today’s students are performing at lower standards than other generations.

The study, sponsored by Common Core, a nonpartisan Washington group advocating for a stronger emphasis of liberal arts education in public schools, tested 17-year-old students from various U.S. schools to identify in which studies students were lacking. Reported in a recent USA Today article titled “Teens losing touch with historical references,” the survey further cast a shadow on the current state of the American education system.

According to the article, the results of the study were more devastating than disappointing. A small percentage of students excelled (hurray), responding correctly to most of the questions. Nevertheless, the majority of students followed a dangerous downward trend. On a whole, students answered 67 percent of the 33-question test correctly. Questions about Christopher Columbus, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Civil War and others stumped students and left officials in disbelief.

One-third of students were unaware that the Bill of Rights guarantees American citizens freedom of religion and speech. Many were graduating without knowledge of Brown v. Board of Education and more than 40 percent thought “The Scarlet Letter” was a part of the witch hunt or a famous correspondence.

On the bright side, 97 percent of those surveyed correctly identified Martin Luther King Jr. as the author of the “I Have a Dream” speech. This makes me wonder about the other 3 percent.

Many blame the lack of factual memorization and the stress on the current practice of analysis as a key factor in the fall of history and literature retention. Others concede that the focus on individual school districts to perform well on standardized tests deters teachers from preparing their students for anything else.

The study said that classroom time spent on history and social studies fell by 24 percent between 1988 and 2004 in grades one through six. English and “reading arts” increased during this 16-year period but the emphasis was on basic reading and comprehension skills, not literature.

Perhaps education officials and administrators need to take a step back and seriously re-evaluate the current state of our schools. A refocus to the roots, to important literature and lessons from history, could have an impact far beyond our expectations, possibly creating a generation with more knowledge and appreciation of liberal arts than ever before.

We always hear about how the United States is falling behind other countries in math and science skills. Could this out-performance be rooted in something other than numbers? A stronger devotion to learning and understanding the past and comprehension and exploration of literary classics could save the student population. Social studies and literature must be treated with equal importance as any course teaching the laws of physics and calculus.

History and literature teach students their social responsibilities, civil rights and cultural understandings. Students that excel in liberal arts are better prepared for the workforce, are stronger communicators and will develop interests that turn them into more aware, considerate and intelligent members of society. Literature and social sciences are the gateway to other types of education. Those that are successful in math and science are so because of their success and desire to learn more, seeded in liberal arts.

In our public schools we place a serious responsibility on preparing students to succeed in life. Every pupil who graduates without common knowledge of literature and the most basic world and national history is a failure of the American education system. Our success as individuals, a community, a nation and a world depends on comprehension of our shared history and culture. Without it, we are lost.

Taylor Moore is a journalism senior and a Mustang Daily current events columnist.

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