“Don’t Know Much About History”: The New York Times 1943 Survey of U.S. History and the Controversy It Generated
by Anne-Lise Halvorsen — 2012
Background/Context: Educators, parents, politicians, and the media often complain that young people know little history and compare them unfavorably to better-educated, earlier generations. However, the charge is exaggerated. Young people have performed poorly on history tests for decades. Students’ poor scores on one test in particular, the focus of this study, caught the nation’s attention: the New York Times 1943 survey of college freshmen’s history knowledge.
Focus of Study: This study examines the debate between supporters of history education and supporters of social studies education about the New York Times 1943 survey of college freshmen’s history knowledge. In a report on the survey results, the newspaper claimed that these students knew little of their country’s history, and not much more about its geography. The study places the survey in the broader context of history and social studies education in the early to mid-twentieth century. The study traces the origins of the survey and the debate between two key players, Allan Nevins and Erling Hunt, and describes reactions to the survey from educators, politicians, the media, and the public. In addition, the study describes how the American Historical Association, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, and the National Council for the Social Studies counteracted the survey’s findings to defend the teaching of history and social studies in the U.S.
Research Design: This study is a historical examination of the survey and the controversy it generated. The study uses archival resources, primary documents, contemporary newspaper and journal articles, and key players’ private letters, to explain how the survey was developed, reported on, and responded to.
Conclusions: Although the survey was not the first of its kind, and certainly not the last, and did not result in major changes in history and social studies instruction, it gave defenders of history education and social studies education a national battleground for their war of words. In examining the increased interest in the pedagogical debate on fact-based learning versus historical thinking skills that the survey provoked, this study brings perspective to a long-standing controversy, highlights the tension between advocates of history education and advocates of social studies education, and shows how the public reacted with deep alarm to the survey’s results. This study highlights the divisive effects of using a single test to draw conclusions about the state of education. In the conclusion, the study calls for a negotiation by all sides in what are known today as “the history wars.”
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