WASHINGTON, DC — In an article she wrote in 1930, Eleanor Roosevelt concluded that good citizenship is the purpose of education. Eighty-nine years later, it is still the primary reason we send our children to school. Certainly, the classroom is also where kids learn the skills they need—eventually–to get good jobs.
But, it is also where children learn how to be industrious and conscientious citizens—a lesson that would be hard to learn without a knowledge of the successes and failures of past.
America’s dire need for a history lesson has been revealed in numerous studies. Most recently, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported that Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens.”
The Foundation had 41,000 Americans from every state take the U.S. Citizenship Test; Vermont was the only place where a majority of those who were tested — 53 percent — passed.
It’s not a question of whether history teachers are doing their job, or if history is being taught in the schools. “This is an issue of how we teach American history,” according to Foundation President, Arthur Levine. The problem is the way in which it’s taught is “boring.”
The late Dr. Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recognized early on that the source of the nation’s history “deficit” was from boredom.
There’s nothing like a page-turner to help tap the innate desire in each of us to learn about the past, and Dr. Cole realized that. Children in particular are curious and interested in how they got here, and what it means to be an American. But often their textbooks fail to catch their attention. He felt the solution was to show just how exciting the subject could be. He believed “history could use the help of a ‘good read’ to generate enthusiasm among young people.”
Dr. Cole came up with the notion for the Grateful American Book Prize, and along with author, publisher and education advocate, David Bruce Smith, implemented the project in 2015. According to Smith, “our focus was on getting writers and publishers to produce more works of historically accurate fiction and nonfiction; books that could capture the imaginations of kids and adolescents. And, based on the growing popularity of the Prize, it has worked.”
Valerie Tripp writes historical fiction for children. In a blog at the Teachinghistory.com Web site she wrote, some years ago: “Historical fiction helps us fire up our students and readers because it uses emotion to make the facts matter. It uses emotion to teach gentle life lessons, and to form a ribbon of connection between the child in the classroom and the characters in the story.”