King’s legacy deserves more

Published 3:05 am Tuesday, January 16, 2007

By Staff
As Americans celebrated the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, they did so under a cloud: The possibility that future generations may not really know what King did and why.
In a recent survey of college students on U.S. civic literacy, more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for “racial justice and brotherhood” in his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Others surveyed thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery, something that happened before King was even born.
These weren’t grade-school kids taking the test; they were college students. The study went on to find little difference in civics knowledge when comparing that of college freshmen with seniors.
The effort by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute concludes that schools are not doing as much as they could to go beyond a cursory history lesson, according to a story published Monday in The Washington Post.
More than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities earned an average score of 53.2 percent in the survey. Many of the 10 federal holidays have become little more than days off school or work, even if they are dedicated to significant Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Many people have no idea what Labor Day commemorates, educators are quoted as saying in the Post story.
Educators blame the trend on educational efforts that put math and reading on a higher level of importance than history. That argument doesn’t cut the mustard. In the scope of a public education, there should be time to make sure every student has basic knowledge of American history.
None of the four North Carolina universities involved in the study has anything to brag about. Duke University students scored 58 percent on the test, but freshmen actually did better than seniors. North Carolina Central students posted a score of 33.7 correct, with Appalachian State students scoring 43 percent and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scoring 56 percent.
While the lack of knowledge about King is disturbing, the lack of general civics knowledge as a whole is just as bad. The future of our society depends on citizens who have an understanding of how government works.
For Americans to understand where we’re going, we need to understand where we came from. History or civics can’t be relegated to the back burner. In a well-rounded education, history plays a role as important as math, reading and science. Educators alone should not have to shoulder the burden. Parents can and should also play a role.
If Dr. King is important enough to have a national holiday named for him, he is important enough that we should teach his lessons — in words and deeds every day — to future generations.