Site menu:


September 2014 - Volume 19, Number 3


Click Here for a pdf version.



Why Do So Many Know So Little About U.S. History?

by Burton W. Folsom, Jr.


The problem starts in the schools, and with the content taught (or not taught). If, for example, most high school students today don’t know when the Civil War occurred, or why it occurred, how will they understand what it accomplished?


The Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school are important because they attract the best students and prepare them for college. The AP United States History Standards for teaching advanced history courses to millions of students across the nation were revised and expanded this year, “effective fall 2014,” so I read them to see what all the fuss was about. I was appalled.


The central theme in U.S. history, according to these slanted standards, is group conflict and the perpetual tension with race, class, and gender. Thus, the section on immigration in the late 1800s will astonish many students: Why would almost a million immigrants each year want to come to a country so oppressive to so many groups? No answer to this key question is forthcoming.


The sheer silliness of the Standards may thwart their efforts to turn the students into incipient radicals. For example, the Standards never explain why the Puritans came to America, or why the Cold War started or why it ended. Why did the U.S. become the major economic power in the world? On this question also the Standards are silent, but they do tell the students, “The market revolution helped to widen a gap between rich and poor.”


Few American presidents are even mentioned in the new Standards; entrepreneurs and even civil rights heroes are also mostly absent. Their stories of hard work, overcoming challenges, and seeing their vision change the nation have inspired many students over the years, but those stories disappear from the new Standards.


The Standards regularly confuse good intentions with outcome. In discussing the Great Society reforms of the 1960s, for example, the Standards praise liberals for good intentions in wanting to help people: “Liberalism reached its zenith with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society efforts to use federal power to end racial discrimination, eliminate poverty, and address other social issues while attacking communism abroad.”


What the Standards don’t tell students is that the Great Society largely failed because its programs created perverse incentives. In the 1960s, under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), unwed mothers were given incentives to have children out of wedlock. Payments for each child out of wedlock increased, Medicaid benefits were added, food stamps and rent subsidies were tossed in, and the King vs. Smith Supreme Court decision allowed these benefits to continue even if boyfriends lived with the unwed mother.


The intentions of the liberal reformers were good, but poverty often increased after the 1960s in part because millions of new babies – black, white, and Latino – were being born into fatherless homes. Research has strongly shown that children born into intact families have much higher rates of success and happiness in life than those children born into one-parent households. The Great Society, with its good intentions, weakened the family structure and often did more harm than good.


These points are, of course, omitted in the new Standards. Thus, we may be on the verge of failing to educate another generation of students. How can we preserve and defend the liberty this country was founded on if we don’t teach students how we won our freedom and why our country, with all its faults, is worth defending?
For the time being, we need to encourage parents to consider charter schools, private schools, and even home schooling in order to educate their children. Students in AP U.S. History classes should read Larry Schweikart’s Patriot’s History of the United States to give them insight into why America has been an exceptional nation in world history.


Burton W. Folsom, Jr., is a Professor of History at Hillsdale College and is the author of The Myth of the Robber Barons, New Deal or Raw Deal, FDR Goes to War, and most recently Uncle Sam Can't Count.


This article appeared on August 14, 2014, on his website,, Burt
Folsom: Where History, Money, and Politics Collide, and is reprinted with permission by the author.


LIMITS is one of our quarterly membership newsletters, arriving in March, June, September, and December. It consists of short articles and essays on protection of human rights by limiting the powers of government.


LIMITS is published by Public Interest Institute at Iowa Wesleyan College, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, research and educational institute, whose activities are supported by contributions from private individuals, corporations, companies, and foundations. The Institute does not accept government grants.


Contributions are tax-deductible under sections 501(c)(3) and 170 of the Internal Revenue Code.


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used: "Reprinted by permission from LIMITS, a quarterly newsletter of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute.


If you have an article you believe is worth sharing, please send it to us. All or a portion of your article may be used. The articles in this publication are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry, because IDEAS DO MATTER.



All of our publications are available for sponsorship.  Sponsoring a publication is an excellent way for you to show your support of our efforts to defend liberty and define the proper role of government.  For more information, please contact Public Interest Institute at 319-385-3462 or e-mail us at