A Hanlon’s Razor Challenge: Is The Decline Of History Literacy Among U.S. Students Due To Malice Or Incompetence?

[I apologize for using that Sam Cooke song to introduce this topic, as it is lazy and obvious, but 1) we don’t hear enough of Sam Cooke, one of the many great voices of the Fifties, and 2) I’ll always take a video over a picture, and I’ll always choose a song over just words.]

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released last week showed that about 40% of eighth graders scored below the basic level in U.S. history in 2022, compared to 34% in 2018. Only 13% of students performed at or above the “proficient” level in U.S. history. In addition, Eighth graders’ average civic scores decreased by 2-points compared to 2018, the NAEP results show. They are comparable to results from 1998, which is the first assessment year for civics under the current framework.

Why this should surprise anyone is a mystery. Although the decline is being attributed to the pandemic and the beyond idiotic (but politically unavoidable) lockdown, it has been clear for years that indoctrination according to partisan and woke agenda items had taken priority over teaching history and civics as the teaching ranks have become increasingly populated by ideologues and proto-Marxists who themselves don’t know much about history. It is deemed more important today to teach children that they are either the victims of systemic racism or complicit in it as well as the complex joys of alternate sexual orientations rather than the content of the Constitution, the U.S. role in winning World War II, or the issues underlying the Civil War.

There is a strong argument to be made that those seeking to re-make the American culture, economy and national values want the next generation to be historically ignorant: all the better for the purpose of cultivating a easily led future public less committed to personal liberty and more accepting of a controlling central government, precisely what the United States was founded to escape. Thus does Hanlon’s Razor ( “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”) become relevant: Are our young ignorant of history because of calculated negligence by educators and elected officials eager to have fertile ground for a far left takeover, or is this just the accumulated result from decades of parental apathy, teaching incompetence, and bureaucratic sloth and stupidity?

Either way, the looming threat is the same. Jonathan Turley, in an unusually alarmed post for him, has written an excellent exposition of how serious this trend is for our country, sparing me the work of doing so here. It concludes with, “[T]he farce that is our current educational system is producing a generation of historically illiterate citizens. That can only be a tragedy in the making.” Indeed it is.

10 thoughts on “A Hanlon’s Razor Challenge: Is The Decline Of History Literacy Among U.S. Students Due To Malice Or Incompetence?

  1. It’s a classic example of”it isn’t what it is.”. The left wants to erase history and erase those who are not it’s acolytes, but, at the same time they want to call anyone who dares to say “you will not erase us” the worst kind you f racist.

  2. It is deliberate on the part of Deep State Department of Education operatives in conjunction with academia that contributes not only to ridiculous screeds comparable to “The 1619 Project”, but also makes certain that college students, particularly would-be teachers, are indoctrinated in this philosophy so that they can pass it down to their students.

    The blame falls on them predominately for abusing the trust and power they are afforded society for personal gain.

    It also falls on:

    – Students: For not expanding their horizons beyond the curricula. When we finished a unit in history, I picked out a book from the library connected to that unit and read it (ex: biography of Alexander the Great after the unit on Ancient Greece). And that was in High School.

    – Parents: For not taking the time to educate themselves either in areas in which they are deficient, but also in what their kids are being taught. Of course, the kids are given meals (some even meals to take home on weekends), sex ed, drivers ed and even grief counseling because parents can’t be bothered to do that either. The burden on teachers is increased when parents refuse to be responsible for their children.

    – Teachers: For being beholden to a Union instead of the public good.

    – Politicians: For holding education hostage to political infighting and partisan agendas.

    – the Media: For being complicit in this dumbing down orchestration, for cheerleading it because it reflects their personal agendas and for demonizing parents who object.

  3. Actually, while I don’t disagree with the motives of those assigned to teach our children, the primary culprit in this decline is that the Federal Government requires that students be tested/proficient in reading/language arts, mathematics and science. There is no proficiency requirement for history and civics. So, these courses are only required according to district and state recommendations and less time is applied.

    This doesn’t explain why our students are also deficient in reading, math and science.

  4. My kids all have a solid handle on history. Better than my own for certain. My kid is currently taking world history. His final is a poster. He is doing the Incas, I believe. I remember my oldest daughter doing hers on ancient Egypt. This has been a common tactic where each kid chooses a topic and presents to the class. They also have a series called “I survived” which is really popular. It covers historic events. So does “The Magic Treehouse”. He has also read “guts and glory” and studied the Vikings independently for fun and him and his friend have studied Morse code for fun. He asked me if I knew that Napoleon was at war at the same time the Louisiana Purchase happened. I didn’t. He said they covered the civil war and WW 1 and 2 also. I asked where they got to in history he said they were up to the crusades. He has also read several biography books and journals from soldiers and holocaust survivors this year in English. So perhaps this is true as a whole, but where I’m sitting history education is pretty good and much better than mine.

    • Your kids may be among the 13% then that are proficient. Sounds like your son is doing World History. He is also doing independent reading on history not just assigned reading for class. Good for him.

      I wish all students were the same. I spoke to a guy about 15 years younger than I am. He asked me if he had a Civil War fact correct: The Southerners were slaveholders and Republicans. The Northerners were Democrats and opposed to slavery.

      I had to tell him that the parties were switched.

      This is not an isolated incident, unfortunately. After I went to Valley Forge on vacation, I ate at a restaurant wearing my Valley Forge t-shirt. The young male cashier asked me what Valley Forge was. He thought it was Washington crossing the Delaware. At least, he knew what THAT was.

      • It’s possible, he does have an “A” in history, and yes he is in world history this year. It’s really on the teacher, but we’re also in a very, very small school so the teachers have them the next year as well, unless they leave the school. This seems rewarding for them as they can see the personal growth of the kids from 7-12 grade. It’s also hard because it’s a challenge to have the various classes. We are in the west, so they’ve learned more about western history than civil war. Think Mesa Verde, dinosaurs, pioneer museums and celebrations, geology and mining. The school is too… suffocating thanks to the strict testing. It ruins their curiosity so they don’t want to learn independently and that’s their biggest failure. They know most of what they’re learning is likely useless to them as adults and they see no importance to them. Especially when they actually do always have a calculator with them, and a spell checker and an atlas…

  5. There decline in educational output is many factored. How are kids supposed to learn in environments like this?


    Students run amok, making it hard to teach them anything. All the kids have what amounts to a computer in their pocket distracting them from learning anything.

    Social Studies replaced History in elementary and middle schools long ago, and spends more time covering political indoctrination than history.

    At the curriculum setting level I think there is some malice. Some individual educators are probably acting with malice. Many more educators are blindly following dictates from above out of ignorance and lack of other options.

    Mostly, though, I think schools are being micromanaged by the state into acting as daycare centers for out of control kids and teens while abandoning that whole education thingy. They aren’t really schools anymore.

  6. I can identify two reasons for this decline. The first, of course, is the fact that whatever history they do teach it is tainted with DEI, and other ideologies. The second is the relentless emphasis on science and math. I live near two universities and am involved in campus ministry at both. The students I’ve met all major in engineering, physics, math, or computer science. Although both schools have history departments I have yet to meet a history major or anyone who has taken a history or literature course above the required overview.
    I presented an elective seminar on the history of religion in America to a dismal class size of 14 students. The campus boasts a population of 30,000 +.
    Last night I presented a bible study that involved a discussion of the phenomena of theodicy. The audience was 20-30 somethings. I asked if anyone had read Eli Weisel’s NIGHT, (which was required reading for me in high school c 1961-65). Not one hand was raised.

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