The issue is typically painted as a crisis — “the immigration crisis” — but history suggests it is not.
“Often lost is awareness that percentages of foreign-born residents are not remarkably high right now,” Gallagher said. During the 1890s, about 15 percent of the U.S. population was born outside the United States. Today the percentage is 12.9. Throughout American history, there have been periods of heavy immigration (the early 1900s, 1910s and 1990s), but over time numbers rise and fall somewhat cyclically.
This is the kind of knowledge that makes for informed and scholarly debate. But few Americans can claim anything close to historic or civic literacy.
In 2011, when Newsweek magazine asked 1,000 adult citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president, 73 percent couldn’t explain the Cold War and 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests student knowledge in various subjects every few years. In 2010, just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of high school seniors were considered grade-level proficient in American history.
Sad to say, both American history and civics education are losing ground in our nation’s schools because neither subject is considered essential by policymakers. Math and language arts increasingly dominate curricula because those are the subjects on which schools are graded and teachers are evaluated. A few states have instituted statewide, high-stakes tests in civics and history, but Indiana is not one of them.
The historian David McCullough made headlines in 2012 when he said in a “60 Minutes” interview, “We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate.”
An informed public is the best antidote to polarized and uncivil discourse, yet as McCullough, Gallagher and so many others have warned, we are moving in the wrong direction.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.