Monday, June 20, 2011

Who cares about American history?

by Jeff Jacoby

WHEN THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION last week released the results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress -- "the Nation's Report Card" -- the bottom line was depressingly predictable: Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in US history, and the percentage declines as students grow older. Only 20 percent of 6th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrate a solid grasp on their nation's history. In fact, American kids are weaker in history than in any of the other subjects tested by the NAEP -- math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics.

How weak are they? The test for 4th-graders asked why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure in US history and a majority of the students didn't know. Among 8th-graders, not even one-third could correctly identify an advantage that American patriots had over the British during the Revolutionary War. And when asked which of four countries -- the Soviet Union, Japan, China, and Vietnam -- was North Korea's ally in fighting US troops during the Korean War, nearly 80 percent of 12th-graders selected the wrong answer.

Historically illiterate American kids typically grow up to be historically illiterate American adults. And Americans' ignorance of history is a familiar tale.

When it administered the official US citizenship test to 1,000 Americans earlier this year, Newsweek discovered that 33 percent of respondents didn't know when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, 65 percent couldn't say what happened at the Constitutional Convention, and 80 percent had no idea who was president during World War I. In a survey of 14,000 college students in 2006, more than half couldn't identify the century when the first American colony was founded at Jamestown, the reason NATO was organized, or the document that says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Numerous other surveys and studies confirm the gloomy truth: Americans don't know much about history.

Somewhere in heaven, it must all make Harry Truman weep.

He never attended college and had no formal intellectual credentials, but Truman was an avid, lifelong student of history. As a boy he had devoured Plutarch's Lives and Charles Horne's four-volume Great Men and Famous Women, developing an intimacy with history that would later become one of his greatest strengths. "When Truman talked of presidents past -- Jackson, Polk, Lincoln -- it was as if he had known them personally," the historian David McCullough wrote in his landmark biography of the 33rd president.

Truman may have been exaggerating in 1947 when he told Clark Clifford and other White House aides that he would rather have been a history teacher than president. Yet imagine how different the NAEP history scores would be if more teachers and schools in America today routinely imparted to their students a Trumanesque love and enthusiasm for learning about the past.

Alas, when it comes to history, as Massachusetts educator Will Fitzhugh observes, the American educational system imparts a very different message.

While the most promising high school athletes in this country are publicly acclaimed and profiled in the press and recruited by college coaches and offered lucrative scholarships, there is no comparable lauding of outstanding high school history students. A former public school history teacher, Fitzhugh is the publisher of The Concord Review, a journal he began in 1987 to showcase the writing of just such exceptional student scholars. The review has printed 924 high-caliber research papers by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations, The New York Times reported in January, winning a few "influential admirers" along the way.

But this celebration of what Fitzhugh calls "varsity academics" amounts to just drops of excellence in the vast sea of mediocrity that is American history education. Another kind of excellence is represented by the National History Club that Fitzhugh launched in 2002 in order to encourage middle and high school students to "read, write, discuss, and enjoy history" outside the classroom. Beginning with a single chapter in Memphis, the club has grown into an independent national organization, with chapters in 43 states and more than 12,000 student members involved in a rich array of history-related activities.

"Our goal," says Robert Nasson, the club's young executive director, "is to create kids who are life-long students of history." He and Fitzhugh have exactly the right idea. But as the latest NAEP results make dismally clear, they are swimming against the tide.


Some British university students are now heading to America to study

With the cost of a British university set to triple, we are no longer sneering at the price Yanks put on education. Instead, we'd quite like a slice of that ourselves.

It was revealed this week that the number of British students applying to top American universities has risen by one third in the past year. The news was greeted not with outrage, but with resigned nods of the head.

"There's no question the fees increase has opened up the whole US market," says Norman Renshaw, whose firm InTuition Services helps find American scholarships for British undergraduates. "The question parents are asking is whether the increase in UK fees will mean increased investment on the part of those universities. And the answer is no. So they're coming to the conclusion that they should look elsewhere."

More and more their gaze is heading westwards. According to the Fulbright Commission, which facilitates the flow of students back and forth across the Atlantic, there has never been a greater British interest in American colleges.

"The number of UK students in the States is 8,861, two per cent up on the previous year," says the commission's senior adviser, Lauren Welch. "And that's just for the year 2009-10, which is before the fees increase became a big issue. Plus, we've had a 30 per cent increase in web traffic, and at our last US College Day, in London, we got 4,000 visitors in one day, which was 50 per cent up on the previous year."

While British universities are turning down more applicants per year, American universities are making strenuous efforts to harvest this sudden, abundant crop of young Brits.

"More British citizens come to Florida than any other nationality - only now we want to import not just holidaymakers, but students," says J Robert Spatig, of the University of South Florida, in Tampa, who has been on four fresher-hunting trips to the Britain in the past nine months.

"In fact, your £9,000 fee mark is pretty much the same as the amount we charge," he says, "which is $15,000 [£9,375 at current exchange rates]. The cost of living is much lower in the US, and on top of that, we are in a position to extend scholarships that start at £4,000 per year, and go up to £6,000 for your most able students. All of a sudden, we have become less expensive than your University of Manchester. Plus we have better weather."

Not all American universities are as fee-friendly as South Florida, however. According to the US College Board, average undergraduate tuition rates are £12,000 at state-funded universities and £16,800 at their private counterparts. And that's not including living costs of around £5,500 per year. The top institutions charge higher fees, around £23,750.

"It's very likely that you'll end up applying to a university you've never heard of," says Welch. "That doesn't mean it's not top-notch. There are 4,000 universities in the United States, of which 70 are ranked among the world's top 200."

True enough, the choice is astonishing: there are 700 universities in California alone, as opposed to 300 universities and further education colleges in the United Kingdom. So where do would-be applicants start? And how do they know they're applying to the kind of institution that appears in Social Network, rather than Animal House?

A good place to look is one of the university ranking guides, such as those compiled by US News (America only) or software firm QS (worldwide). Things to consider are size of student population (from 4,000 to 40,000) and level of academic requirement (the lower it is, the better your chance of a scholarship).

But that's just the start. In terms of prestige (and cost), you need to know if your intended alma mater is one of the eight north-eastern Ivy League universities such as Yale, Harvard or Brown, where Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, went to study; one of the 30 "public" Ivies (less famous, but still top-notch, for example Michigan, North Carolina at Chapel Hill); or one of the 62 Association of American Universities colleges (membership by invitation only). Private universities tend to be smaller and more expensive than state-funded ones. Liberal arts colleges have a broader curriculum, and are geared more towards undergraduates, while research colleges are more graduate-orientated.

After finding some possible colleges, a student must take a Sat, or scholarship aptitude test, which is like a grown-up 11-plus, incorporating maths, writing and critical reading. The Fulbright Commission offers limited hand-holding, but you can expect a warmer embrace from organisations that specialise in finding places and scholarships for Brits.

The boldest claims are made by InTuition services, which guarantees 10 academic scholarship offers, or a refund of your fee (£1,560). It also runs a sports scholarship trip to Florida, on which you spend 10 days trying to impress US college coaches (£2,340). For a more modest fee (£995), Pass4Soccer puts on a showcase event, during which young British footballers attempt to catch the eye of American coaches.

"Getting a US soccer scholarship was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Pass4Soccer's Tom Nutter, a former England Under-16 footballer, who went to Texas A&M University in 2005, on a 75 per cent scholarship. "The facilities are tremendous, and you get treated like a real professional. I got to play against lots of guys who went on to play for the US national team, and at the end of it all, I came out with a degree, which I might not have got if I'd tried to make it as a pro in England. You're a student first and an athlete second; the coaches would actually go round the lecture halls in person to check you were attending the classes."

There's one thing that all British students acknowledge: you're expected to work much harder at an American university. "You take five subjects per semester, and in each you have to attend two lectures and one discussion per week, or you get marked down," says 24-year-old Edward East, who went to the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville.

"You've got to keep your grade point average up all the time," says Lauren Hewett, who is on a tennis scholarship at the University of Tampa, Florida. "I was never entirely comfortable with idea of continual assessment for every piece of work you do, and for every class you attend or don't attend," says Adam Alfandary, who, instead of reading history at Cambridge, chose a liberal arts degree at Amherst College, in Massachussetts. "But you learn early on that you're in a place where people are uncompromisingly serious about education."

Ask any of these students whether it was worth the hard work, and they all respond in the affirmative.

"I've been offered a world of opportunities," says 21-year-old Laura Tunbridge, who was rejected from all her first-choice universities in Britain, but won a scholarship at Yale. "I've been to Ecuador to study Spanish, to Vermont to ski, and to New York to see the City Ballet. Because Yale is a liberal arts college, you study such a wide range. I'm majoring in film studies, but I've studied Spanish, philosophy, astronomy, English, applied mathematics and theatre."

As well as broadening minds, it seems a transatlantic degree strengthens character, too. "He's so much more mature and confident than when he left Britain," says accountant Barbara Allen of her son Will, who has just finished a degree in nano-physics at McGill University, Montreal.

"His time there has given him a truly international perspective. He's still only 22, yet the idea of going to live and work in a foreign country leaves him undaunted. I'm in no doubt that it's been money well spent."


100 'free schools' to open in Britain next year

More than 100 schools run by parents, teachers and charities will open in little over a year in a boost to the Coalition's Big Society programme, ministers will say.

Some 281 applications have been made in the past three months to establish a new wave of "free schools" - government-funded institutions run independent of local council control.

New figures show almost 60 per cent of bids to open new-style schools have been made by community groups. Around a fifth come from independent schools seeking to open satellite campuses for parents unable to pay for a private education.

In most cases, applicants are attempting to establish new schools because of a shortage of places in the local area or to "address historic academic failure", the Government said.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, will use a speech today to insist that his "free school" policy is on track to meet initial targets. Last month, Labour said the Big Society idea - designed to devolve power to communities - was "descending into farce" after Lord Wei, the peer in charge of the reforms, said he would stand down.

Addressing a conference in London today, Mr Gove will point to "extremely promising" recent "free school" applications as evidence that the reforms are working. "Our critics said it was impossible to open a school in little more than a year. Several will open this September," he said ahead of the speech. "Our reforms are about creating a generation of world-class schools, free from meddling and prescription, that provide more children with the type of education previously reserved for the rich."

Under the policy, any non-profit making group can apply to open a school free of local council interference. The group will have almost complete independence to hire staff, set teachers' pay, alter the academic year and write the curriculum.

Some 323 applications were made to open schools last year with about 90 per cent rejected because of weak business cases. Forty were improved, and about 14 schools are expected to open in September.

Of 281 applications made under a new, more rigorous, regime launched this year, it is estimated that around 100 will open in September next year. Of those, most are for mainstream schools, although a small number of bidders are seeking to open institutions for pupils with special needs or those expelled from ordinary primaries and secondaries.


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