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Abraham ... Who?

On June 14, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a study that claimed only 9% of fourth graders were able to both identify Abraham Lincoln and give two reasons why he was significant to American history.

The results of the study have prompted a barrage of criticism for the American educational system, yet many are quick to point out that, historically speaking, history has always been students’ worst subject. NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story on June 19 that pointed out that on a similar test in 1943, only 22% of students could answer the same question about Lincoln. NPR said that students “face rote textbooks and a system dominated by multiple-choice testing that encourages ‘teaching to the test’ instead of deeper, contextual learning.”

Maybe it is a failure of the educational system. Maybe it is a failure of the test itself, as a History News Network article “Can Educators Even Answer These Lame Questions?” suggests. Even before this latest study was published, a March feature in Newsweek, “How to Get Smart Again” by Niall Ferguson, lamented the bad reputation of history. “It’s no coincidence that in the Harry Potter books the most boring subject at Hogwarts is history. Mr. Binns, the teacher, is so tedious that he has bored himself to death – without noticing.”

What do you think? What do you remember most about your grade school years – was it the textbooks? Could you, yourself, rattle off the significance of Abraham Lincoln, whom historians widely consider to be the greatest president in the history of our country?

If you can’t, try popping some popcorn for family movie night this Monday at 10/9C, when Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided airs on your local PBS station.



Tory Starr is a Production Assistant for American Experience. 

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