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Don't make history, history

The marginalization of history in our schools will have seriously detrimental effects on the country.

Thursday is National History Day. At the University of Maryland, nearly 3,000 middle and high school students from around the country will present the results of their year-long engagement with U.S history. A team of judges will pick the best projects, and the young scholars will be recognized for their accomplishments.

Since its founding in 1974 by Case Western Reserve University professor David Tassel, National History Day has involved some 5 million students from across the country in school-based programs devoted to researching topics in American history. Notable NHD alumni include Carolyn Shaw, Pulitzer Prize winner in music, and Food Network personality Guy Fieri. A National History Day documentary on the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 helped persuade Congress to pass a bipartisan resolution to reopen that high-profile case in 2005. This year's topic is "Leadership and Legacy in American History," and in Maryland, students will share papers, exhibits, documentaries, performances and websites.

The success of National History Day, which the National Endowment for the Humanities has supported since 1978, is all the more impressive when set against the background of the waning of the commitment to the teaching of the humanities generally, and history in particular, in school systems around the country. Resource pressures, combined with expanding testing regimes and our increasingly exclusive and shortsighted preoccupation with science and technology as the keys to "work readiness," are pushing history from the center to the margins of school curricula.

According to statistics produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in both 1994 and 2010 "a substantial majority" of school-age children in the United States "failed to demonstrate 'proficiency' in U.S. history." Worse still, nearly 60 percent of high school seniors graduating in those years failed to demonstrate even a "basic" knowledge of U.S. history. It's some consolation, though not much, that the history "proficiency" of students in the 4th and 8th grades improved between 1994 and 2010, though the percentages of students with only a basic understanding remains depressingly low.

In an increasingly myopic nation, one in which more and more citizens are choosing not to expose themselves to opinions they don't share and not to participate in civic and national discourse, the marginalization of history in our schools will have seriously detrimental effects on the country — nowhere more deeply than in our democratic political life. Maintaining a robust democracy is impossible without fundamental commitments to knowing our past and understanding our political values. Young people need to know that we value history and that we care about their engagement with it.

Several weeks ago, a group of academic historians and others published an open letter protesting the recently revised Advanced Placement Test in American history. The letter followed earlier opposition to the test, and it prompted a vigorous defense of the revisions. It is important for scholars to parse the philosophical differences around how best to represent our history. But I hope they — and the rest of us — don't lose sight of a much more alarming fact: We are less and less committed every year to teaching critical subjects in the humanities, including, especially, history. We ought to be able to find common ground in the desire to restore history to the very center of the secondary school curriculum.

Congratulations to the students and teachers who have made National History Day such a success. Let us hope we have the will to imagine a day when NHD reaches into every school district and classroom in America.

William D. Adams is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; he can be reached at or on Twitter: @NEHgov.

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