What to Do When America Gets an F on Its History Report Card

Can you identify a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and give two reasons why he was important? If so, you are doing better than 91 percent of American fourth graders. According to the Nation's Report Card -- the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), issued by the U.S. Department of Education -- only nine percent of fourth-grade students across the country, in public and private schools combined, could answer this question completely.

Worse still, a full 98 percent of 12th-graders could not adequately specify which social problem Brown v. Board of Education was meant to correct. What makes this failure particularly shocking is that the test quoted an excerpt from the Brown v. Board of Ed. decision: "We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Since the middle of June, when the NAEP released its report on U.S. History, dozens of publications and broadcast outlets have publicly lamented these dismal results. The best that can be said is that they actually used to be worse. At all grades tested, students perform a little better now in U.S. History than they did in 1994, when the NAEP was first given. It's also encouraging that scores for Black and Hispanic eighth-graders have gone up in U.S. History since the previous test, in 2006.

But overall the picture remains dim. In 2010, fewer than one-quarter of the students tested were judged proficient in U.S. History.

That means fewer than one-quarter of our future voters will have a fundamental grasp of American civic life -- fewer than one-quarter will be able to view the problems of the moment in a meaningful perspective.

We must do better than this! The challenge may begin in our elementary schools, but it does not end there. As a society, we must find ways to make history matter to people of every age.

In our experience at the New-York Historical Society, one of the most effective ways to do so is through the power of storytelling. Distinguished authors and filmmakers such as David McCullough and Ric Burns have shown the way in their books and television programs, constructing compelling narratives that convey information, ideas and human drama all at once. At the New-York Historical Society, we have been experimenting for years with telling such stories not in a book or on a screen but in a museum gallery: a gathering place where individuals can merge into a public, and encounter history directly through authentic objects from the past.

A decade ago, already knowing the bad news that the NAEP assessment would confirm, we decided we had to do more to bring the stories of American history to the public. That's why we invested in a $65 million renovation project that has transformed the New-York Historical Society, and changed our landmark building from a beautiful but enclosed treasurehouse into an open and welcoming showplace.

We will open the transformed New-York Historical Society this autumn, on November 11, inaugurating new permanent installations that are designed to engage the entire public. And to reach our younger visitors -- the ones who need it the most, according to the NAEP report -- we will now have a specially dedicated space called the DiMenna Children's History Museum.

There are more than one million children in the New York City Public Schools, and far too often the study of history falls through the cracks in their classrooms. To make matters worse, New York State recently eliminated its fourth- and eighth-grade benchmark exams in American history -- and with the pressure of the exams removed, we can expect even less instruction in this subject. That's why the New-York Historical Society and other institutions have to step up. At the Historical Society, we already teach American history to 100,000 students annually. Watch us double that number in the first year after we re-open our building.

We are taking up the challenge at the New-York Historical Society -- and hope many others will join in. For we must all rally to the cause of making history matter, because as citizens we all have a stake in the outcome. History is not just what happened in the past, you see. It's also what our young people will make of their future.