Published Date

January 1, 1944

From American History in Schools and Colleges (1944)

Do Americans know their own history? The answer to this question depends upon one’s idea of history and the quality of the knowledge expected. If by knowing history one means the ability to recall dates, names, and specific events, the answer is fairly clear: Americans in general do not know this kind of history. If by knowing history one means the understanding of trends and movements, the appreciation of past events and persons, and the ability to see a connection between the experience of the country and the experience of the individual, the answer is that Americans in general do know a reasonable amount of American history.

The quality of a person’s historical knowledge is largely dependent upon the objectives which he has in mind. If he and his teachers regard history as a collection of facts to be memorized like the multiplication table, a nursery rhyme, or a poem, the emphasis will be placed upon drill and repetition. This kind of learning can be achieved. If a relatively small number of facts are accepted as the desirable goal, the pupils can be cajoled, bribed, and drilled into learning them. And if the facts are fixed by repeated drills, they will come in handy on some quiz program, in some argument, or in some trivial test. But the learning of such a selected list of facts would constitute a questionable educational goal and its achievement would require the expenditure of disproportionate time and effort.

If the objective of history is to develop understanding and insight, the emphasis will have to be placed upon wide and critical reading, upon the interpretation of data, upon the synthesizing of diverse accounts, and upon the understanding of relationships. These too can be taught, and even though the acquisition of such abilities and insights also requires much time and effort they are educational objectives worthy of the time and effort required.

Retention depends largely upon the kind of materials learned. An examination which requires merely the recall of specific but infrequently utilized information is not only difficult, it is also of equivocal and uncertain significance. Specific facts are forgotten far sooner than principles, applications, generalizations, and relationships. A test which measures these outcomes is a good instrument even though the specific contributing facts have been forgotten.

It is a gratuitous assumption that the inability to identify the frontier line of 1860 demonstrates complete ignorance of the history of the westward movement. Failure to recall Monroe’s veto of the appropriation bill for a national road does not prove a general ignorance of the history of transportation in the United States. Failure to identify a painting by Thomas Hart Benton does not indicate a general ignorance of the cultural history of America. It is clear that many factors must be considered in judging the replies to such tests.

Failure to recall specific facts shows that they were not repeated to the point of rote recall; it also shows that the facts had ceased to be useful in the lives of the persons questioned. That which is unused tends to fade beyond recall, and the minute details which serve to build an impression or attitude fade long before the impression or attitude. For example, the representative American probably knows more about the history of the tariff, its effects upon politics and prices, than his failure to recall the date or the name of the Fordney-McCumber tariff law would indicate. He may know a great deal about immigration and its effects upon America even though he never heard of the quota law of 1924. He may have a general understanding of foreign relations even though he cannot recall the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

The forgetting of details is not a virtue. In fact, the retention of them is highly desirable, for there is a positive correlation between the recall of specific information and the ability to use it. Many details, however, are primarily raw materials which are to be utilized in building up generalizations, interpretations, and critical abilities. Facts are important, often indispensable, but they are the means toward the larger objectives of history and not the ends themselves. They must be utilized, and in many instances learned, but the retention of facts is not the exponent of historical power.

How well Americans know their history depends also upon the standard by which their knowledge is measured. The person who decides that Americans should be six feet tall will soon find that there are many undersized citizens. He can lament and bemoan, but the situation will probably not be changed by his distress. The person who decides that Americans should know one hundred selected facts from United States history will also have occasion to deplore the ignorance of his fellow-citizens and clamor for a law. There is no harm in contrasting popular information with an ideal standard, but such a contrast should be recognized for what it is—an exercise in unreality.

Any useful, practicable, and reasonable standard of achievement in American history must be derived, not from what a group of enthusiasts think should be the standard, but from the records of what selected groups actually achieve. The test which is discussed in this chapter contains sixty-five items. It would be easy to say that all well-informed citizens should be able to answer all of them. The fact is that many well-informed, useful, successful, and even distinguished persons cannot answer 75 per cent of the items. This showing does not prove either that the test is invalid or that the persons who took it are ignorant. It simply proves that a reasonable and acceptable score on this test is far below the perfect score.

The Committee has tried by means of its test to emphasize and demonstrate the important distinction between the mere recall of factual items and the understanding of significant trends and generalizations. Any test of historical knowledge and understanding must be grounded on the solid basis of facts but, as the foregoing analysis has shown, a valid test must also sample the person’s understanding, insight, and powers of discrimination, and his recognition of relationships as well as his recall of factual content. The Committee believes that its test involves these larger values without neglecting or minimizing the background of facts.

The Committee’s Test of Understanding of United States History consists of sixty-five items of the multiple-choice type, with four options, or possible choices, in each. One option is regarded as clearly the best, but there are degrees of acceptability in some of the other responses. Some of the items can be correctly answered by the simple recall of specific facts, while others require the drawing of comparisons, the employment of time relationships, the making of interpretations, and the analysis of causes and results. Correct responses to some of the items call for the ability to read maps or interpret pictorial materials. The items are scattered over the entire time span of United States history, though the emphasis is upon recent and contemporary periods and their relation to the past.

This instrument of measurement is an achievement test. The function of such a test is to distribute the scores of the persons who take it on a scale of their relative performance. It is not a standard by which to measure a person’s entire knowledge of American history; it shows merely how a particular individual performs in comparison with others who have taken the test. It samples rather than covers one’s knowledge of American history. The score which an individual makes on this test has little significance until it is interpreted in the light of the performance of the group to which he belongs. For example, the score of a particular high-school student has greatest significance when compared with the achievement of large groups of such students. His score has less significance when compared with those of social studies teachers. It cannot be interpreted in terms of the percentage of correct responses; in fact, scores on an objective test cannot legitimately be expressed in terms of percentages of the total number of items.

Like all instruments designed for the measurement of human achievement, the Committee’s test has some shortcomings. It uses only one form of question, the multiple-choice. This form, theoretically at least, does not require the recall of information but merely the recognition of correct information. Actually, however, many items cannot be attempted seriously unless facts as well as relationships and generalizations are recalled. For example, selecting the correct response in Item No. 1 involves some understanding of the Atlantic Charter before comparing it with each of the four documents listed in the options.1 Thus the correct answering of this question involves first the recall of facts, and then the ability to make comparisons on the basis of those facts. This same principle is involved in several other items, for example 17, 45, and 60. Therefore more than mere recognition of facts was required.

The items are not distributed according to any systematic pattern of epochs, areas, or elements. While such a distribution might be desirable, the relatively small number of items makes such a systematic sampling of these categories impossible. If one assumes, however, that each option has to be considered, he will realize that the test involves not sixty-five items but sixty-five times four, or sixty-five times five if one counts the problem posed in the introduction to each item. The objection that the test does not sample all areas of American history, while true, does not lessen its validity in the areas to which it does apply.

The test contains words which may not be understood by the person taking the test. No one can be sure that the person for whom he writes possesses a vocabulary which includes every word the writer uses. It is a limitation of any verbal test and not a shortcoming peculiar to this one.

Opinions may vary as to which is the best response to some items. An item may measure performance accurately on one level and not at a higher or lower level of knowledge. A response which is acceptable from a high-school student might trouble a professor of history who sees implications beyond the range of high-school textbooks and high-school students. An example of this may be found in Item 7, which involves a recognition of the frontier line of 1860. The person who knows a great deal about the history of the frontier will realize that there was (1) an explorer’s frontier, (2) a hunter and trapper’s frontier, (3) a trader’s frontier, (4) a military frontier, (5) a land-cession frontier, (6) a frontier of public lands surveyed and marked for sale, (7) a frontier of settlement, and (8) a frontier of the density of population. Obviously, an item of five or six lines cannot measure such detailed knowledge, but fortunately a test designed for general usage does not need to do so. Popular knowledge as reflected in high-school textbooks in American history is the level on which this test was made.

Recognizing that the test is no perfect instrument of measurement, the Committee nevertheless has faith in its general validity and evidence of its reliability. Even a crooked stick enables one to secure a fairly accurate measure of the comparative heights of persons. Insofar as the test measures anything, it measures the power of discrimination which arises from the study of American history.

The Committee’s test was administered to various groups during August and September, 1943. The most significant groups tested were high-school students, military students, and social studies teachers. The test was given to 1332 high-school seniors in 22 schools in as many states. These particular schools were chosen because they were known, on the basis of an extensive and independent national testing program, to be representative of all high schools in the United States. The majority of the seniors had studied American history in Grade XI, but many were starting to take it in Grade XII. The effect of this factor is reported below.

Military students, numbering 529, also took the test. This group consisted of men in the military services who were pursuing training programs in various colleges. Since these men were drawn from all sections of the United States, they are thought to be representative of all service men who were selected for collegiate training. And since any unit of this group represents wide geographic distribution, the particular centers in which they were tested has little significance.

Many of the social studies teachers who took the test do not teach American history and some are elementary teachers who teach all the subjects. About one fourth of these teachers were enrolled in summer school classes, but the rest took the test individually and voluntarily. Nearly all are college graduates and some have worked toward advanced degrees. In spite of the selectivity involved in using the mailing list of a social studies organization, the group is thought to be fairly representative of social studies teachers throughout the United States. The selective factors mentioned above, however, indicate that the group is probably above rather than below the national norm.

The test was also given to several adult groups, including business clubs, selected persons listed in Who’s Who in America,2 farmers, members of labor unions, housewives, college students, a library reading group, and a religious group. The performance of these selected adults is interesting rather than representative of the particular population groups to which they belong. No accurate conclusions as to the performance of these groups can justly be made upon the basis of these small and scattered samplings. In spite of the inadequacy of the samplings from particular groups, however, the total performance of these miscellaneous groups, together with the analyses of their responses to the individual items, does furnish a reasonably significant index of popular knowledge of American history. For example, 70 per cent of the group from Who’s Who in America thought that Thomas Jefferson helped to frame the Constitution. This result alone substantiates the statement that well-informed persons may not know an important historical fact.

The sample items presented here show how the complete item analysis in the Appendix should be interpreted. In Item 1, the second option is starred to show that it is the correct response. The groups in order of their percentage of correct choices of this option are (1) Who’s Who, (2) social studies teachers, (3) selected adults, (4) military students, and (5) high-school students. The fact that the Who’s Who group did better than the teachers can probably be explained by the age factor. Most people listed in Who’s Who in America remember the Fourteen Points as a contemporary event, while the much younger group of teachers remember them only as a paragraph in a book. The age factor also may explain why the group of selected adults surpassed military and high-school students, although the median performance of these three groups on the test as a whole was about the same. It is interesting to note that high-school and military students showed a strong tendency to select the Monroe Doctrine as the correct response. This indicates that, while they were aware that the Atlantic Charter was concerned with foreign affairs, they were inclined to associate it with the only other document on American foreign policy with which they were familiar.

Item 36, which involves an understanding of a contemporary situation, also permits several interesting deductions. Almost all social studies teachers and members of the Who’s Who group selected the correct response, while only a fourth of the high-school students made the right choice. Age and experience clearly had something to do with these results, since the military students made a much higher score than the high-school students, and the selected adults were noticeably superior to the military students. The immaturity of high-school students is also demonstrated by their preference for option 4, Political organization. The students who selected this response showed not only inability to appraise a complex situation but also unfamiliarity with terms commonly used in discussion of contemporary problems.

The performance of the various groups on the whole test is shown in Table I. The table may be read thus: The range of the scores of high-school students is from 0 to 54 with a median of 22. Half of this group made scores falling between 18 and 27. The upper 25% of the group, however, made a score of 28 or above. The performance of the other groups can be read in the same manner.

The comparative performance of the various groups can be read easily from Figure 1, which shows that there is extensive overlapping of the groups when the total range of scores in each one is considered. However, the performance of the high-school students, the military students, and the selected adults is inferior to that of the social studies teachers and the persons from Who’s Who in America. No person in the Who’s Who group scored lower than 24, which is higher than the median of the high-school students. Likewise, all but one fourth of the social studies teachers and the persons in the Who’s Who group made scores higher than three fourths of the high-school pupils, the military students, and the selected adults.

Figure 1

Table II gives further information about the performance of high-school students on the test. The samplings from the high school are more representative than the samplings from any other group. For this reason it seemed desirable to present additional data on the scores of the high-school group.

The comparative achievement of senior boys and senior girls is given in this table. The performance of seniors who had American history in high school is compared with that of students who had not had American history since junior high school. The data indicate that boys make higher scores than girls. Also, as is to be expected, those students who have studied American history score higher than those who have not. However, the striking fact revealed by the table is that the difference between the two groups is small, although it may be significant. It should be emphasized in interpreting these results that high school students have had at least two courses in American history before entering senior high school.

The significant, in fact the crucial, generalization which must be drawn from the Committee’s testing program is that understanding and insight in American history result from slow but nonetheless continuous and persistent growth. Some would be inclined to conclude from the performance of high-school students that their instruction is either meager or ineffective. Such a conclusion is not justified by any evidence in this chapter or by the accumulation of similar evidence about other subjects. The truth, which is even more difficult for the brilliant than for the mediocre to comprehend, is that at any one level much may be taught, less will be learned, and a great deal will subsequently be forgotten. Educational realism demands that any subject be taught and taught again until the cumulative effect becomes significant and enduring.

It may be true that instruction in American history is often mediocre, but it is also true that even the best instruction will not make high-school students perform at the level of their teachers or of persons listed in Who’s Who in America. This is true, not because instruction is poor or content ill-chosen, but because the human being learns slowly and forgets quickly.

The converse and hopeful feature of this statement is that persistent effort results in learning, and that even small increments may be highly significant. High-school students who studied American history in high school did perform better than those who had not studied it in high school, even though their margin of superiority was slight. The slowness with which knowledge is acquired even by able students is illustrated by another example. A superior group of high-school students, including some who had had and some who had not had American history since junior high school, achieved a median score of 25 on the Committee’s test. This is higher than any of the groups listed in Table II, but only one point higher than the best group. It is these small increments from year to year, in school and out, resulting from studying history, reading the papers, listening to radio programs, reading historical novels, or seeing historical films that ultimately produce performances like those of the teachers and persons in the Who’s Who group.

These principles of learning and of education are basic to this report. The Committee does not believe that it is possible to prescribe the magic formula by which teachers can fix the content of American history in the minds of their pupils for all time. Rather, the Committee believes and has confirmed by the results of its test that Americans must repeatedly be exposed to their own history in school, in college, and in adult life if they are to know it and use it. The Committee is also convinced that material in American history must be interesting, timely, and pertinent, that the education of the teacher must be improved, and that the student must have understanding of geography, economics, sociology, government, and particularly world history if Americans are to approach an understanding of their own history. Passing a law ordering Americans to know their history, prescribing a unit of American history for all high-school and college students, liquidating professors of education, or abolishing objective tests are not solutions to the problem of developing an understanding of American history.

Next section: Why Should Americans Know Their Own History?



  1. See Appendix for full text of all test items mentioned. []
  2. The group from Who’s Who in America was chosen by an arbitrary formula. At selected intervals the last name on the right hand page was taken. The persons so selected were invited to take the test at their convenience. Each one signed a statement that he would take it without recourse to any aid. Nearly 400 persons were asked to take the test, and 107 sent back usable answers. []