How Much U.S. History Do Americans Actually Know? Less Than You Think.

We ask David Bruce Smith, founder of the Grateful American Foundation, how we can fix this problem

Tackling the prickly issue of history-malaise. (Paul Souders/WorldFoto, 6836 16th Ave NE, Sea/Corbis)
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Last year, PoliTech, a student group at Texas Tech University went around campus and asked three questions: "Who won the Civil War?", "Who is our vice president?" and "Who did we gain our independence from?" Students' answers ranged from "the South?" for the first question to "I have no idea" for all three of them. However, when asked about the show Snookie starred in ("Jersey Shore") or Brad Pitt's marriage history, they answered correctly.

This lack of knowledge in American history is not limited to college students. Studies over the years show Americans of all ages fail to answer the most simple of questions. A 2008 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which surveyed more than 2,500 Americans, found that only half of adults in the country could name the three branches of government. The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report found that only 18 percent of 8th graders were proficient or above in U.S. History and only 23 percent in Civics. 

To help address this problem, David Bruce Smith, an American author and editor, founded the Grateful American Foundation in 2014. The interactive educational series aims to restore a passion for history in kids and adults. We interviewed Smith over e-mail about his program and his thoughts on how teachers can make American history enjoyable to learn. 

How did you develop a passion for American History? 

I was born loving history. When I was a little boy, my grandfather said I should read biographies—especially about the great people like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin; he believed that knowledge would flow into my young mind, and pool into a reservoir of wisdom that I would be able to tap in the future. It was good advice. My mother was also a bibliophile. She kept me "supplied" with the books: about everyone from Madame Curie and Winston Churchill to Catherine the Great and Joseph Lister.

You started the Grateful American Foundation in 2014 and the Grateful American Book Prize in 2015. What was your inspiration for these and what do you hope to achieve through the projects? 

The Grateful American Book Prize for authors of kid-friendly books based on factual events and people in American history was created partially because I was becoming more aware of the multi-generational historical illiteracy in our country.  The prize, and our Grateful American Foundation, also honors my father. He always referred to himself as a "Grateful American." We are a fortunate family, and because of that, he felt very strongly about "giving back." During the last 20 years of his life, he devoted himself to education, and nothing excited him more than to see a child excited about learning—particularly history.

So, I have taken his sentiment and converted it to a noun. Hopefully, the prize and the foundation will move kids—and adults—to become more enthusiastic about it via videos, games, and interactive activities.

What can schools and/or parents do to foster interest in history for their kids? What are some innovative techniques you suggest? 

The onus of making an appreciable shift is—unfortunately—on the teachers, because often, parents have as little historical "literacy" as their kids. Most importantly: the teacher has to be interesting, imaginative, and he/she should have an educational credential. Class materials should be fun and exciting; all history is after all--is telling stories. Primary and secondary sources should also be included; they would give "immediacy" to whatever is being studied. And, because funds are scarce almost everywhere, why hasn't business pitched in with resources? The students are their future employees. Better to have an informed workplace than not.

Do you see this lack of interest in history among kids as a problem in just the U.S. or is it a problem worldwide? 

I don't know if history--malaise is a worldwide problem. Though it is a prickly issue, it is solvable. It might take 25 years to fix, but slow progress is better than none.

What books do you recomend for teachers to help kids learn about American history? 

Here are some books that I recommend: Esther Forbes's Johnny Tremain (Revolutionary War); Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (Civil War); The Diary of Anne Frank (World War ll); Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind (Civil War); Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (Civil War); Leon Uris's Exodus (World War ll); And Irving Stone's Those Who Love (Abigail and John Adams); Love is Eternal (Mary Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln), and The President's Lady (Rachel and Andrew Jackson).

What period of American history is most intriguing to you? 

My favorite period is the Civil War. A troubled time, but also a "Second" Declaration of Independence. I believe it was the formal beginning of Civil Rights, and for the disenfranchised--the eventual Emancipation Proclamation--was the first concrete document to push for freedom and equal protection under the laws of the Constitution. Out of all the bad, some good came---a 150-year search, so far, of questioning, questioning, questioning, and trying for the most part to make a better country. Even if the way forward has been more of a zig-zag than a straight line.

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