World History Missing From Today’s Classrooms, Fordham Study Says

Published September 1, 2006

Ever heard of Simon Bolivar?

If not, you’re not alone. And unless they live in California, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, or Virginia, students returning to the classroom this fall are likewise unlikely to hear of the general for whom Bolivia is named. That’s according to a report released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute this summer.

When it comes to world history–particularly history south of the Rio Grande–two-thirds of the classrooms surveyed scored “D’s” or “F’s,” according to the report. Only the eight states mentioned above got “A’s.”

“At a time when the United States faces threats and competitors around the globe, and when our children’s future is more entangled than ever with world developments, our schools ought not treat world history so casually,” Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn Jr. said in a statement.

“Nations that once were little more than curiosities to most Americans have transformed themselves into places of vital interest and concern,” Finn noted. “No one can be considered adequately prepared for life in the 21st century unless they understand the history and culture of the world’s major civilizations.”

Tunnel Vision

Walter Mead, a historian and foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, which has offices in New York and Washington, DC, spearheaded the study. He found only a handful of states require students to pass a world history test to graduate or get promoted to the next grade.

“Educators’ preoccupation with subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) can only increase the chances that world history will be ‘narrowed’ out of the curriculum,” Mead concluded in a news release.

“The failure of public schools to teach world history amounts to denying equal opportunity to our most vulnerable populations,” Mead said. “Millions of low-income and minority students are being denied basic cultural and economic rights.”

Poor Content

States that did poorly in the study have several things in common in their classrooms, according to the report. These include:

  • little or no historical content, or so much historical content teachers couldn’t possibly begin to cover it all;
  • excessive focus on modern European history;
  • extreme multiculturalism that treats all nations and cultures as equally significant;
  • standards that provide students with no logical timeline, relying instead on trendy “themes” without regard to the overall story of history.

Two Priorities

Martin Davis, Jr., a senior writer and editor at the Fordham Institute and a former history professor, said Americans haven’t had to pay as much attention to world history, including Latin American history, in the past as they do now.

“It’s something that’s going to affect you your entire adult life,” Davis said.

Davis agreed with Mead that states’ pressure to comply with NCLB has led to an overemphasis on mathematics and reading, when world history is just as valuable.

“Reading and math are the only two scores that matter [under NCLB],” Davis said. “Schools that don’t meet these requirements can be put on probation and can be forced into restructuring. [Therefore,] you’re going to devote more time and more energy to math and reading. Something’s got to give on the other end.”

Better Standards

One encouraging development noted in the report is the increasing numbers of students taking advanced placement tests and SAT II subject tests in world history. “Those numbers are booming,” Davis said.

But those rising numbers illustrate another important point, Davis said. Kids who are motivated to go to college take a greater interest in and place greater importance on world history. State departments of education, Davis said, should direct their resources and attention toward kids who don’t.

Revamping educational standards doesn’t take more money, Davis said. Departments of education “can decide to trash what they have and rewrite standards from the ground up. The Advanced Placement [world history] exam is a great model for states to follow. It doesn’t have to be a huge fiscal issue.”

Mat Herron ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Kentucky.

For more information …

The State of State World History Standards 2006, by Walter Russell Mead, Chester E. Finn Jr., and Martin A. Davis Jr., published by the Fordham Institute in June 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #19524.