ON-Lion Letter

"[A] few weeks ago, thousands of Irish students sat for their leaving certificate exams, a set of exams that they must pass in order to graduate from high school.  They also double as college placement exams," begins a July post by Michael McShane on the AEIdeas, the public-policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) in Washington, D.C. 

McShane is a research fellow at AEI in education-policy studies, which are substantially supported by Milwaukee's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

For part of the "higher-level" history test, according to McShane, Irish students "had to be able to answer one of the following four questions:  1. Why did race relations remain a major issue in the US, 1945-1989?  2. What were the strengths and weaknesses of Lyndon Johnson as a political leader?  3. What were the significant developments in the US economy, 1945-1989?  4. How did the Americans achieve a successful moon landing in 1969 and what was its importance for the US?

"I’d hate to think of the answers I would get from some high school seniors here in the states to those questions," he writes.  "I’d also be interested to know if they would be able to do the same for significant people and events from other countries.  Could they compose an essay about the strengths and weaknesses of Charles de Gaulle as a political leader, or Tony Blair?  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

"If you think the 'ordinary' level students have it easy, they don’t," McShane continues.  "Students had to write a paragraph about one of the following topics[:]  1. The US economic boom, 1945-1968.  2. Urban poverty, drugs and crime.  3. Betty Friedan.  4. The US withdrawal from Vietnam.

"And then had to answer one question of the following four:  1. What problems did Harry Truman face, 1945-1953, and how did he tackle them?  2. What did the Montgomery bus boycott (1956) contribute to the Civil Rights movement?  3. How did the US achieve a moon landing in 1969 and what was its importance?  4. In what ways did Billy Graham promote religion in modern America?

"Whether it is Santayana’s charge that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, or Jefferson’s calls for an educated populace as the bedrock of a democracy, we have serious reasons to be concerned that our students do not know enough about our own history, or the history of the world outside of our borders," he concludes.

"If Irish kids can be expected to have a detailed knowledge of American history, we should expect the same of our own."

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