WASHINGTON, DC, Dec 14 – Those “gotcha” moments on TV when young passersby are asked to name the first president of the U.S. and respond with quizzical looks may be funny. But, they expose the fact that American youngsters suffer from a history deficit.
“It’s the reason the Grateful American Book Prize was created,” says David Bruce Smith, co-founder of the award. “The Prize encourages authors and publishers to produce more works of historically accurate fiction and non-fiction for young learners and we feel compelled to encourage parents and grandparents to give the gift of history to the children in their lives this holiday season.
Numerous studies have shown school children have a discouraging lack of knowledge of American history. Too many of them don’t know even the basic facts about our nation’s past, about the events that shaped America, the people who founded the country and those who built it, creating the world’s first superpower. One survey of elementary school children revealed that 25% believed Columbus sailed to America sometime after 1750–not 1492.
Author and publisher Smith teamed up with Dr. Bruce Cole, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to establish the Grateful American Book Prize. It’s the first award of its kind that offers an incentive for new writers and established authors to focus on historically accurate books for children, novels and biographies that can bring history to life for kids.
“Our children are not stupid so there must be another reason for the widespread and appalling lack of the basic knowledge of who, why and how the nation was founded. If you ask the students, they are apt to tell you that history class is boring, that they don’t get the connection between what happened then and what is happening now and that history books are dull. But maybe the real reason is that many schools don’t even have history classes anymore; they cover that base nowadays with Social Studies and/or Civics classes using texts that provide the facts but do little to spark an interest in history,” according to Smith.
Perhaps since we live in an age when the focus of education is on science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the so-called STEM subjects—history takes a back seat in the classroom, he says. “Some say it’s critical that we teach young learners “practical” subjects so they’ll be competitive in the Global Economy of the 21st Century. That may be so, but as education consultant Robert Pondiscio put it: ‘Many Americans have forgotten we have public schools so students can become educated citizens capable of self-government’.”
Smith notes that the odd thing is that as kids grow older, particularly when they are out of school, many develop a hankering for the past. They seek out history-based films and, more important, books about historical places, figures and accomplishments.
Here’s what one young woman who was “bored” in history class said: “Since I left school I have become pretty good at reading lots of historical novels. It’s because they are more interesting. If I had done this while still at school, I think that my marks would have been heaps better.”
It makes sense, Smith remarks. “The books she read were engaging; they roused her curiosity and dusted up her desire to learn more about the historical characters and places in those novels. Her regret is that she didn’t start reading while she was in school. And, that shows us that there is a way of encouraging students to embrace history class: give them a good read. So, when you go shopping for holiday gifts this year, don’t just go to the toy store; make a stop at your local book store while you are at it.”