Sequestration Hits History and Civics

One of the best tools for gauging the historical knowledge and civic awareness of young Americans is the exam administered to 12th Graders by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in U.S. history and civics. Every few years, students across the country take these low-stakes tests and provide data on how many of them know about the Korean War, the 14th Amendment, the term “melting pot,” and important Supreme Court cases.  You can see sample history questions here and civics questions here.

Every time the exams are given, disappointing results show up, for instance, in 2010, only 12 percent of 12th graders reaching “proficiency” on the U.S. history exam.  Only 24 percent of them scored “proficient” in civics.  Those numbers have served as crucial pieces of evidence for those of us worried about the story and concepts of the American Founding diminishing in the high school curriculum.

The results won’t do so any more.  The board that oversees the NAEP exams has voted to suspend indefinitely the 12th grade assessments in U.S. history and civics, as well as geography.  (See news story here. The reason is sequestration, which cut nearly $7 million from NAEP’s budget.

No more will we receive evidence that, for instance, only 43 percent of high school seniors know that census data determine how many seats in the House of Representatives each state has (56 percent thought that it determines number of senators each state has, how many people are to be drafted into the military, or how much federal income tax citizens in different states must pay).

This is a loss for educational conservatives who need all the information they can get on outcomes.  A root principle of conservatism is that the past is a guide to the present, specifically, that respecting the traditions and norms and institutions of the past saves us from mistakes in the present.  Progressivism, on the other hand, tends to regard the past as something to escape.  Another principle of American conservatism is that the Founding bequeathed to American citizens a civic structure (local control, checks and balances, etc.) that must be maintained against the inevitable temptations of power (the Imperial Presidency, unelected regulators, etc.).  Progressives believe that those 225-year-old conditions are worn-out hindrances.  When evidence of the decline of historical and civic mindfulness goes away, conservatives lose an essential weapon in the debate.

If people don’t know much about the history and civics of their country, there is no more debate.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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