Don’t Know Much About History – What Are Our Children Learning?

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Edmund Burke

We were checking out at a supermarket when the young woman who was helping pack our groceries commented that the store was very busy. “Is it a federal holiday or something?” she asked me. I said, “Yes, it’s Juneteenth.” Her confused look told me she had no idea what I was talking about.

Juneteenth may not be the most well known holiday, having just been given that distinction three years ago, but it’s just one example of how young people, in the words of that Sam Cooke song, “don’t know much about history.” If our young cashier had cracked open a history book, she might have learned that on June 19, 1865, enslaved people learned of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation. That decree only applied to Confederate states, and enslaved people did not entirely win their freedom until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 13 percent of eighth graders were found to be “proficient” in history. “In 2022, the average U.S. history score at eighth grade decreased by 5 points compared to 2018 and by 9 points compared to 2014,” NAEP says. In other words, fewer students are learning about history.

When young people don’t learn the facts, they are susceptible to embracing “alternative facts.” Conspiracy theories find a receptive audience. The Holocaust? Never happened. Slavery? According to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Blacks learned valuable skills as slaves. No surprise that Florida approved a new African-America curriculum that teaches about the “personal benefit” of slavery. 

Florida, of course, is the state where 2,700 books were challenged for removal. Texas came in second with 1,500 books challenged. Books targeted for removal often are written by authors of color or members of the LGBTQ community. When students don’t have access to books that present different points of view, they eat up what they are spoon fed. Then again, there is all the misinformation circulating online. Somehow the New York Times ethos “All the news that’s fit to print,” now encompasses anything that appears on TikTok, WhatsApp, etc. There’s no fact checking. Instead, taking a page from the Trump manual, just keep repeating the lies and they will be embraced as the truth.

Parents have an important role to play, especially those parents who live in red states where censorship is taking place. Books banned in the school? Then go book shopping with your child. Don’t do it online. Actually go to a small local book store or a Barnes & Noble. Browse the history section together. Let your child take the lead. And when those books are home, make sure you take some time to read and discuss with your child.

Have a child who likes sports? Then pick up some books about sports heroes like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, who recently died at age 93. Want your child to understand what it was like for Black baseball players in the Jim Crow era? Pull up Reggie Jackson’s recent comments on FOX. 

Watch TV! Two terrific channels to tune into are The History Channel and The National Geographic Channel. Both channels also recommend books and have study guides. PBS’s schedule is chock full of history offerings, especially ones produced by Ken Burns, including The U.S. and the Holocaust, The Civil War, Lewis & Clark, The Vietnam War, The Roosevelts, and many more. (Go to the PBS website for more information.)

Taking a vacation this summer? Republicans on Capitol Hill may not like history, but Washington, D.C. overflows with stories about the people who wrote the Constitution, and those who fought to defend our country against outside and inside forces. Visit the Smithsonian museum and the National Archives where the famous documents that founded our country are on display.

Take a short drive from D.C. and visit Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. Your child will learn, not only about our nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president, but about the enslaved people who once lived on the grounds. Mount Vernon is just one plantation that is correcting the record on slavery. Some plantations echo the lie that slaves were happy living on plantations and were treated like “members of the family.” (I heard that on more than one tour when writing a book on plantations.)

It’s sad that so many states and schools have injected politics into education and are abdicating their responsibility to teach children history. If our future depends on our young people, who all too soon will be eligible to vote, then we have a responsibility to make sure that they are educated and well informed and know a lot about history.

Top photo: Bigstock

About Charlene Giannetti (716 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.