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With competition from video games, television, the Internet, and iPods, students are reading less. With No Child Left Behind emphasizing testing in math, reading, and science, students spend less time studying history. On the latest National Assessment of Education Progress Tests in both American History and in Civics, only a small percentage of eighth-graders were deemed proficient. American students, from elementary school through college, do not know enough American history. And, as Thomas Jefferson noted in the 19th century, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.”

A National American History Bee is one antidote to the ignorance of the American past, one way to reinvigorate an interest in American history among our young people. Designed to capitalize on the enthusiasm for contests characteristic of middle-school students, the Bee is orchestrated in a series of “Rounds” administered throughout the eighth-grade year, culminating in the “Nationals” to be held at Mount Vernon in September of the ninth-grade year, the entry to high school in most schools.

The Bee is dramatic, fast-paced, and engaging. It also reflects the research of scholars who argue that middle-school students require a factual framework for future learning and that a certain amount of shared background knowledge paves the way for analysis and reflection. Although the competition is factual, a significant number of questions evaluate historical thinking: a sense of chronology, an ability to weigh evidence, an appreciation of multiple causation, the importance of the individual in history, and the ability to utilize visual and quantitative data.

With the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American History Bee has been pilot-tested for two years in three states and has involved over 3,000 students. Led by Dr. Peter Gibbon, a Senior Research Fellow at Boston University’s School of Education and author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness, a team of history professors and classroom teachers devised questions and formats. The questions tested knowledge of our nation’s political, intellectual, social, military, economic, religious, and cultural history. The team reviewed each question to reflect state standards and current scholarship and to establish compatibility with the cognitive development of middle-school students. In addition, Dr. Gibbon consulted state social studies coordinators to solicit advice on the potential feasibility and design of the competition.

 Peter Gibbon September 2007

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