America’s history deficit is a growing concern among educators. The scholastic focus for our kids — has in the past two decades — shifted from an inclusive, well rounded curriculum, to a science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] emphasis; allegedly, some educators say, these subjects will earn students a better living — faster — when they enter the workforce.
In itself a STEM education is a good thing because the principal purpose of schooling is to give kids the tools they need to succeed as adults. But the strategy works only if the educational arc is well-rounded, and includes the study of history and civics.
Catherine Brown and Sarah Shapiro of the Center for American Progress [CAP] published a report for the American Federation of Teachers last year on The State of Civics Education. It showed that a lack of historical knowledge is widespread throughout the nation, and “Without an understanding of the structure of government, our rights and responsibilities, and the different methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy.”
Unfortunately, the results were not surprising. In fact, we created the Grateful American Book Prize in 2015 because of a similar concern. We hoped it would create an early ripple of enthusiastic interest among middle-schoolers; study after study had already revealed that America’s adolescents were dismally deficient about the country’s past.
The late Dr. Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and my co-founder of the Prize, encouraged the effort. He was concerned that without knowing the who, how and why of American history, the young would find it difficult to grow into productive and responsible citizens. Our concern was based on the fact that fewer than a quarter of eighth grade students were proficient in history–then. The numbers are still hovering at that level, underscoring the need for action.
The CAP report cited a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which found that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government. And, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Center, noted that “Those unfamiliar with our three branches of government can’t understand the importance of checks and balances and an independent judiciary. Lack of basic civics knowledge is worrisome and an argument for an increased focus on civics education in the schools.”
It was hoped that the Grateful American Book Prize would motivate publishers and their authors to produce more engaging books of historically accurate fiction and non-fiction. And—in that—we have succeeded. After all, students who are bored by textbooks are more likely to learn about the country’s past when they read exciting books about the heroic events and people who founded the nation, and made the U.S. a global power.
Teri Kanefield was awarded a 2018 Grateful American Book Prize Honorable Mention for her biography of Andrew Jackson. She put it this way: “A prize like this one helps teachers and parents identify the books that experts have determined are most likely to engage young readers and make them want to read more.”
About the Grateful American Book Prize
The panel of judges for the 2019 Grateful American Book Prize is now accepting submissions for books published between July 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019. Historically accurate books of fiction and nonfiction written for middle schoolers are eligible. Entries for the Prize will be accepted until July 31.