What Does Your Child Know About Thomas Jefferson? (23 AHMP Podcast)
Many people have asked me what launched me on my campaign to inspire adults to learn more about the Founding and Founding Documents? Of course, the simple answer is so they can educate their own children about information which will either be poorly taught to them in school or not taught to them at all. I also believe that it is critical for us to grasp the mounting level of tyranny that the Founders experienced under British rule, and how it served as basis for many of the principles and guarantees they incorporated into our Founding Documents. The plethora of stories from the colonial and founding periods of our nation are also filled with wit and wisdom that we can continue to learn from today.
Today’s podcast is a bit about the spark that ignited my mission, as well as why you MUST make it a priority to teach your children, your grandchildren, and others around you about the Founding, our Founding Documents, as well as the amazing country in which they live.
“What exactly do you know about Thomas Jefferson?” That simple question started me on a quest. It was the summer of 2011, and Congress was in the midst of yet another debate as to whether the debt ceiling should once again be raised. I asked that question of my son who had recently completed the eighth grade. As we discussed the debate, I became amazed by some of the basic information that he did not seem to know. For example, he could not describe exactly how a piece of legislation should move through the Congress, whether or not it was permissible for members of the House and the Senate to negotiate with each other during the time that the legislation is being constructed, whether those discussions were supposed to take place behind closed doors, and if citizens should be able to review the text of proposed legislation before the actual debate began. I began to quiz him about the people and the documents associated with the founding of our country, and my amazement grew further still. I was particularly surprised because he was an avid follower of all things historical. He had even received history-related awards in the fifth and the eighth grades during which time the history of our country was the focus of the Social Studies curriculum. His answer to my question about Thomas Jefferson? He recalled that Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence, he was the third President of the United States, and he owned slaves. I was dumbfounded. What about authoring the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom or founding the University of Virginia? Jefferson considered those two items, as well as authoring the Declaration, to be so important that he included them as an epitaph on his grave stone. He did not even bother to mention the presidency as one of his accomplishments. Upon further questioning I decided he knew far less about Jefferson than I expected.
Later that day I decided to ask my other children what they knew about Thomas Jefferson. My middle child, who had just completed the sixth grade, told me that when she studied U.S. History in the fifth grade, there was no particular focus on any individual. By the way, fifth grade is the year when the colonial and founding periods are the focus of the Social Science curriculum in most schools. She could have learned specifically about Jefferson if she had chosen him to be the topic of her independent study project for Social Studies, but she instead chose to learn more about the Sugar Act. She could, however, recite a dearth of extraneous information about Jefferson which she had memorized from a book I bought for her about the American Revolution. My youngest child, who had just finished 2nd grade, responded to my question by asking, “Isn’t he the guy with the kite?”
If I was concerned about what had been taught to my children in 2011, my concerns have only grown over time. My son completed the AP U.S. History (APUSH) course in 2014. His teacher was outstanding, but the curriculum focused on the second half of the history of our country. Although he thought he had read the entire Constitution in piecemeal fashion, he could not answer detailed questions about the document, nor could he have an in-depth discussion as to why certain things had been included in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. He did, however, receive a score on the AP exam which enabled to forgo taking a U.S. History course at the college level. Consequently, he had never or will never again be required to read the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, or the Bill of Rights in their entirety My middle child completed the eighth grade Social Science curriculum for the State of California in 2013. She is extremely bright and had been reading my blog posts for years. She told me in great detail about individuals, events, and documents that were not discussed at all in class, not mentioned in her textbook, or inaccurately described by her teacher or in her assigned material. She also pointed out to her teacher that she decided to read the works of Locke and Hobbs because there had not been a detailed discussion comparing their theories in class. Luckily, he had a good sense of humor. My youngest child completed the fifth grade Social Science curriculum for the State of California in 2013. At that time the school was in the process of integrating the Common Core structure and standards into the classroom. U.S. History was no longer merely a subset of what was taught in the subject of Social Science. It had been incorporated into the reading standards for the English Language Arts of the Common Core. It appeared that she learned far less about the founding period than her siblings and there was less emphasis on American holidays and general knowledge about the country. For example, my older children spent weeks memorizing the names of the 50 states and their capitals. My youngest child learned the names of the states as part of a song. She did not learn the capitols of the states at all. The “Thanksgiving Feast” which had been eliminated all together in most of the other grades had been reduced to a turkey sandwich with a couple of sides before being sent off to play at lunch. I know that for certain because I was one of the room mothers and saw firsthand how little was being discussed about the roots of and meaning behind the holiday. Additionally, as you might recall from my podcasts about the Boston Massacre, there are inaccuracies and inconsistences found in the material taught about that event in the books for the fifth grade, eighth grade, and AP U.S. History classes. All in all, it continues to horrify me what my children have and have not been taught, as well as the material deemed to be of too little consequence to cover in any depth. I might emphasize that includes a thorough reading and discussion of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
I challenge you to have the same discussion with each child in your family. Ask each one what he or she knows about an important figure in American History. If you have a child who is in middle school, high school, or even college, try to have him or her properly sequence significant events in our country’s past. Ask each child about basic facts regarding the United States such as the names of the state capitals, important geographic features, or historic landmarks. What can your child tell you about important holidays and commemorations of the United States including the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and September 11th? What does she or he think it means to be an American? Finally, ask your child to detail a few important points from one of the Founding Documents. What were the complaints against King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence? What is the purpose of the Constitution? Can your child tell you about any of the amendments in the Bill of Rights? Is he or she is able to list even one right guaranteed in the First Amendment? After this discussion, you, too, may have an unpleasant awakening.
This is not intended to be a condemnation of individual schools or the teachers who struggle to educate the children in their classrooms. My children attend, or have attended, schools which have received California’s Distinguished School Award. The students perform well on standardized tests, and the teachers who work in those schools are dedicated educators. In fact, the teacher who taught 5th grade Social Studies to my children is also an attorney. Who could ask for a teacher better equipped to explain the contents of Constitution to young citizens? The problem lies not in the individual teachers or the local school. In fact, individual teachers, principals, and even school boards have less and less to say about what is actually taught in the classroom. The problem lies not only in the federalization of the education system, but in the transformation in the system as well. Students do not read entire primary source documents in their entirety or learn about individuals and events in depth. Instead they develop a knowledge of U.S. History in no greater depth than the sound bites necessary to pass standardized tests. Under the Common Core’s preference for non-fiction texts, students are often given news or magazine articles which reference a historic document rather than reading the document itself. Unfortunately, such articles also include the author’s perspective of the document, as well as the person who wrote the document, and the occasion or reason which caused the document to be drafted.
Additionally, young citizens are treated to repeated examples of what is wrong or bad about their country rather hearing what makes the United States an exceptional nation and being encouraged to develop a sense of pride in being an American.
Which issues negatively impact how the history of our country, civic responsibility, and patriotism are taught in present-day public schools? I believe the following issues cause the bulk of the damage, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Cause #1: The Federal Government has Used Funding to Gain Control of The Education Process. There is no mention of public education in the Constitution. In fact, the Department of Education was not created until 1867. What was its purpose? To collect information in hopes of improving educational practices across the country. The rallying cry for the creation of this department came, in no small part, from the National Teacher’s Association. As you heard in my previous podcast, those who argued against the creation of such a department warned that it would soon grow to a much larger agency which would attempt to do more than merely collect data. It has, in fact, since mushroomed to employ more than 5000 bureaucrats who continually spew out new regulations and programs. Federal funding is then dangled, like a carrot, in front of the states in order to promote compliance with regulations and participation in new programs. It is a sizable carrot indeed in that the President’s 2016 budget provides for $70.7 billion in discretionary funding for the department, and $145 billion dollars in new mandatory funding. Those numbers do not take into account additional funding coming from other departments (e.g., HHS) that are somehow linked to education.
If No Child Left Behind has proven anything, it is that as the federal government has entwined itself in the process of educating young Americans, well intended ideas can be translated into a bevy of problematic results. Relief from ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has been sought by a majority of the states, and Congress continues to argue about how to reform it. Race to the Top, initially funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (otherwise known as “the Stimulus”), has dedicated more than $4 billion in grants to states which have implemented the Common Core standards. Race to the Top has been widely criticized as a further attempt by the Obama Administration to nationalize the education process. If only President Reagan had been able to carry out his desire to disband the department entirely. I might add that each state also has a sizable education bureaucracy of its own which dictates policies, creates standards, and approves text books for use within each school district.
Cause # 2: Content Standards Vary Wildly From State to State: In that public education has traditionally been the responsibility of the states, each one has separately developed content standards for the subject of U.S. History. Consequently, standards vary greatly across the country. Curriculum specialists, committees, and/or commissions are responsible for creating standards within each state. There has been a long running discussion amongst educators about the advisability of having a large number of standards for each subject. The standards may be poorly written, difficult to teach and almost impossible to assess. When a bevy of standards are created, there may not be sufficient instructional time to teach the material necessary to cover each one. Consequently, schools, or even individual teachers, are left to sort out which standards should be the focus of instruction. Parents have little input into the formulation of the standards and are often unaware of which standards are driving the content that is delivered in the classroom.
Cause #3: History is Not Considered Important Enough to be a Stand-Alone Subject: During the course of the twentieth century, the subject of history was gradually incorporated into the broader field of Social Studies. One of the results of this inclusion has been to restructure how the subject is taught. Students study U.S. History in conjunction with a Social Studies theme. Memorization and analysis of content is often considered less important than the development of a skill such as creative thinking. Material is not necessary taught in terms of its occurrence on a timeline, and the piecemeal delivery can result in students being unable to grasp an event in terms of the context in which it occurred. No Child Left Behind has also hastened the movement away from inquiry-based education toward standards-based instruction. Time tested learning strategies such as in-depth research and analytical writing are often replaced with entertaining skits and bullet-filled posters. Such methods are viewed as a means by which to quickly deliver a level of knowledge that is sufficient for responding to questions on a standardized test. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Common Core will solve this problem because of its focus on things other than actually learning U.S. History. In fact, documents, such as the Constitution, are treated as nothing more than “informational texts.”
Additionally, while the College Board has made changes to the new AP U.S. History curriculum in response to widespread criticism, supporters of the Common Core contend that there is no need for any such revision. Unfortunately, initial assessment tests related to the Common Core in a number of states have found that students fall far short of expectations. While the content standards mentioned above may comply, there is actually even more to be concerned about with respect to the study of U.S. History as it is being taught under the Common Core.
Cause #4: A Minimal Amount of Instructional Time is Available to Teach Students the Subject of U.S. History: One of the unintended consequences of the emphasis on standardized assessment in No Child Left Behind, and something that was in no way improved by Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History and Social Studies is that less time is spent learning about history, science, and other subjects because there are simply not enough instructional minutes in the day to give them the same attention that is being given to reading and math. However, there are lengthy lists of standards that teachers are expected to cover for each of the above listed subjects. Material that is connected with only a handful of questions on a state standards assessment test (such as the names and capitals of the 50 states) may be minimally covered because of the limited amount of instructional time. As noted above, this problem has only increased with the implementation of the Common Core in many states. Additionally, the minimal amount of time given to the study of U.S. History is not limited to elementary, middle, and high schools. While a U.S. History course was once a routine requirement for college undergraduates, this is no longer the case. If future educators are not required to study American history during their collegiate studies, consider what occurs when they later try to teach the subject to others.
Cause #5: Limited Instructional Minutes may be Further Consumed by Special Interest Driven Content Rather than Focusing on Core Facts: In 2011, it became the law in the state of California that instructional time in each grade (from kindergarten to 12th grade) must be dedicated to the societal contributions made by gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans. Such laws further limit the time teachers have to focus on the basic facts and reading documents such as the Constitution. The question becomes what information in the already limited curriculum will be replaced, so that the schools can comply with this new law?
Cause #6: The Founders Are Viewed as Flawed and Founding Documents are seen as Irrelevant: I was surprised how little my children knew about the Founders, the American Revolution, and the Constitution until I understood the changes in how U.S. History is taught in the classroom. In light of the limited amount of instructional time, incorporation of U.S. History into the broader subject of Social Studies, and the standards-based focus of instruction, just which people, documents, and events warrant inclusion into the curriculum? If the history of our country is something that is plugged into the theme of a Social Studies unit, or used to meet a reading standard of the Common Core, how will its relevance be communicated to our children? If the Constitution is viewed as a living document which evolves over time, then research and analysis of its content, let alone the reason each section was included by the Founders, seems to be of little value. If the lives of the Founders are viewed through the lens of presentism, then their flaws will no doubt be of more interest than the incredible accomplishments and the events in which they were involved.
Cause #7: Bias and Presentism Impact the Material Which is Taught: Although no one would think to criticize the Pilgrims for traveling at speeds slower than a modern cruise ship, students are routinely encouraged to judge the actions of their forefathers by our current values and practices. Historians refer to this practice as “presentism,” and it discourages recognition of the historical, political, or cultural context in which a situation occurred. Bias further clouds the subject of U.S. History. The bias of an individual instructor may leave a lasting impression on his or her students. Additionally, political bias may impact the creation of academic standards within a state. This built in bias leads students to perceive events in terms of a particular point of view rather than the context in which they actually occurred.
Cause #8: Patriotism has Become Controversial Amongst Educators: Since when is it controversial to be patriotic? I never dreamed that teaching American children to be proud of their country had become a controversial idea until I searched the Internet using the phrase “teach patriotism.” While there was a smattering of websites with ideas about raising young patriots, I found a plethora of articles by and for educators questioning whether children should be “indoctrinated” with such ideas at all. Many authors also questioned whether it was the school’s role to teach civic responsibility. It seems that instead of teaching children to love their country, and understand practices, such as slavery or women’s suffrage, in historical context in which they occurred, the trend in public schools is to teach cynicism, divisiveness, or even outright distain and hatred for our nation. The resulting consequence can only be ignorance about why our forefathers sought independence from Britain, a lack of interest in civic responsibility, and ultimately a diminishment of a national identity in future generations.
The cumulative impact of these issues can be seen in the standardized test results for the subject of U.S. History. The sad fact of the matter is that standardized test scores for this subject are dismal. My son was amongst the students who took the 2011 California 8th grade STAR Social Science test. A review of the aggregate scores revealed: 27% of the students scored in the “Advanced” category, 23% of the students scored in the “Proficient” category, 24% of the students scored in the “Basic” category, and 25% of the students scored in the “Below Basic” or “Far Below Basic” categories. Although I have not reviewed similar test results for each state, I suspect that they are not much better. Results on the national level are even more dismal. The National Assessment of Educational Progress periodically evaluates students across the country in the subject of U.S. History. The scores for students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in 1994, 2001, 2006, 2010, and 2014 reveal that less than one-quarter of the students in all three grades performed at the proficient level consistently over time. The summary of the 2014 results stated: “Since 1994, the first year of the NAEP U.S. history assessment, the average score for eighth-graders has increased by 8 points. There was no significant change in the average score compared to 2010. In 2014, seventeen percent of eighth-graders performed at the Proficient level in U.S. History, 53 percent performed at the Basic level, and 1 percent performed at the Advanced level.” It seems clear that the combination of limited instructional time, numerous standards, and the manner in which U.S. History is taught all combine to take a toll on what children actually learn about the history of their country.
Any one of above listed issues would be of concern to a conservative-minded parent, but combined they should serve as a wake-up call! If you are a parent, a grandparent, or even an adult who is concerned about the children around you, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I expect that my child will learn about the people and events that played a prominent role in the founding of the United States? Has my child actually learned any of this information? Is this information being placed in the proper historical context, or is my child encouraged to evaluate it according to the practice of presentism?
- Will the school my child attends teach him or her about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other important writings related to the founding of our country? Can my child have an age-appropriate discussion with me about the content of these documents? Is my child aware of the three branches of the Federal Government, and can my child tell me what the Constitution defines as the purpose of and powers held by each branch?
- If my child does not learn about First Principles or the Founding Documents, how can he or she come to appreciate the importance of limited government? Who is ultimately responsible for teaching conservative principles to my child?
- What kind of message is the school giving my child about the past, present, and future of our country? Do I believe it is important for my child to become a patriotic American who actively carries out his or her civic duties?
- Am I willing to take an active role in my child’s education about the history of our country, the Founding Documents, and conservative principles?
The Congressional debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011, as well as the 10th anniversary of September 11th, changed my life. Although I have always considered myself to be a patriotic American, those events awakened my interest in the Founding, and my desire to help restore the constitutional republic that was established by our Founders. The discussions that I had with my children brought about the startling revelation that while I had focused on their academic progress in the 3R’s, I was out of touch with that they learned, or had not learned, about the history and exceptional nature of their country.
As time has progressed, the focus of my efforts has shifted from educating children to instilling a knowledge of and excitement about the Founding in adults so that they can educate their children and pass the information on to other adults as well.
As I have read more and more about the fascinating stories, events, and individuals associated with the founding of our country, I realized there was so much I had never learned or had forgotten about U.S. History in the many years since I last took an undergraduate course. I began to talk to other adults and realized that I was not alone. How could adults teach their children what is no longer taught in school, if they did not remember or had never learned the information themselves? How could the amazing events of the Founding, as well as the sage advice our Founders left us in their writings, be passed along to the next generation if we have not read them ourselves? Hence the creation of my “What is Right With America” blog which you can access either on BingoforPatriots.com or on a variety of social sites including Facebook by searching for “BingoforPatriots” or my name, “Susan Rempel” on Twitter, Linkedin, G+, or Pintrest. Earlier this year I began this podcast, and now will be publishing books with expanded material related to my podcast topics.
I hope that you will join me on my quest to educate myself, other adults, and raise patriotic young Americans. Please let me know what topics you would like me to cover in future podcasts!
Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, informed, and engaged in the political process. Visit my website, BingoforPatriots.com, with more than 500 pages of information, documents, and products designed to motivate the modern patriot.