Historical ignorance isn’t new, but it has ‘taken on added urgency’

On average, students across the country know little about American history “and even less about the world,” write Frederick Hess and Mathew Levey with the American Enterprise Institute.

This struggle with history knowledge isn’t new — student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. history test has consecutively declined since 2014.

But it has “taken on added urgency in a time of intense polarization, declining academic achievement, ubiquitous social media, and rapidly advancing deepfake technology,” continue Hess and Levey.

Consider, for example, student response across the United States to Hamas’ brutal violence on Israel.

The shocking support among young adults for Hamas’ assault draws on historic ignorance and crude postmodern notions of justice and victimhood, in which torture and kidnapping were rebranded a justifiable response to “colonial privilege.”

Indeed, the Minnesota Department of Education’s proposed K-12 social studies standards are littered with terms and concepts like “settler colonialism,” “decolonization,” and “dispossession,” with examples linking Israel to the colonialism narrative. The goal of ethnic studies, which is an added strand within the proposed K-12 social studies standards, is to “explor[e] the colonial roots of the dispossession of Palestinian land and the creation of Zionism,” according to Brian Lozenski, who is part of the Minnesota Ethnic Studies Coalition now named in state law.

Not only is this limited perspective rooted in a narrow ideology, without foundational knowledge in geography, history, religion, economics, and political systems, it prevents students from thinking critically about and forming “meaningful independent judgments on what’s unfolding in Israel and Gaza,” write Hess and Levey.

“You can’t think critically about what you don’t know,” according to Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap, and who Hess and Levey quote.

The Minnesota Department of Education is determined to replace content-based social studies instruction with “inquiry-based” pedagogy, which would have students “construct” their own meaning instead of mastering specific factual knowledge. Students’ ability to think critically, reason, analyze, and make inferences will be severely impacted.

This “shift” away from foundational knowledge has been in play for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, scholar E.D. Hirsch focused his research on the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension. Critics of Hirsch called out his belief in the importance of foundational knowledge as “elitist, Eurocentric and focused too heavily on rote memorization,” cite Hess and Levey.

But the “skills-over-facts trend paralleled a push to jettison traditional historical narratives and moral certainties in favor of critical theories,” continue Hess and Levey.

For example, ethnic studies’ origins “lie in the radical student movement of the 1960s and was created explicitly to underwrite liberationist cultural politics,” writes David Ferrero with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR). “The development of the field over the last 50 years has stayed true to those origins. That is why ethnic studies advocates vigorously insist that ethnic studies is not ‘liberal multiculturalism,’ which they disparage as ‘white-washing’ — white supremacy with a smiley face. They know that the agonistic racial lens isn’t incidental to ethnic studies, it’s the defining feature.”

Additionally, as Hess and Levey document:  

Beginning in the 1980s, Howard Zinn’s enormously influential (if oft-inaccurate) People’s History of the United States recast America’s story as one of unbroken villainy and oppression. 

The unapologetic aim of Zinn’s work—and that of its latter-day, award-winning imitator the 1619 Project—was not to explore our simultaneously wonderful and woeful history but to impress on young people that America and its allies are oppressive colonial powers (that the U.S. is, according to the architect of the 1619 Project, a “slavocracy”).

The proposed changes to Minnesota’s K-12 social studies standards continue this push of critical social justice ideology and an illiberal worldview. American Experiment, along with thousands of Minnesotans across the state, have urged the administrative law judge tasked with approving the proposed standards to send them back to the drawing board.