Our History Knowledge is Abysmal. We Can Do Something About It.

Patrick Riccards
4 min readMay 3, 2023

Americans just do not know their history. Yes, we’ve suspected this for quite some time. Now that the much-anticipated NAEP U.S. history scores are out, what we suspected is now proven true. Eighth grade history knowledge is now at its lowest levels in 30 years.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. From 1994 to 2014, we saw NAEP history scores inch up slowly every four or five years (since the United States doesn’t prioritize history knowledge enough to test it every year). In 2018, the numbers took a downturn. This year, we saw another significant drop. The 2022 scores are now lower than they were in 1994.

The problem is too persistent for us to consider this year’s data to be the “canary in the coal mine.” Despite all of the talk about the importance of history and civics knowledge, particularly leading into the 2020 elections and following the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack in 2021. We talk about how important it is to know our history. We lecture on how we must not repeat the past. We even preach about the need to wipe away our ugly or offensive history. But we do next to nothing to improve the teaching and learning of our full history, ensuring that young people today see the relevance of the learning.

At a time when knowledge and awareness of American history has never been more important, our nation’s inability — particularly those Americans under the age of 45 — to demonstrate a basic knowledge of U.S. history and the foundational people, events, activities, and artifacts that have shaped this nation — has never been greater. The failure is illustrated by polling conducted by the Driving Force Institute of Public Engagement, finding that fewer than four in 10 Americans could pass a basic multiple-choice test on U.S. history, with questions taken from the practice tests for the U.S. Citizenship exam, and only 27 percent could pass the test (answering at least 12 of 20 questions correctly).

No, the success or failure of history education should not be measured on by how well a learner could do participating in trivia night at a local tavern. That’s why the Driving Force Institute has spent time talking to learners themselves, trying to understand why today’s high schoolers think so poorly of history education. According to the vast majority of Generation Z and Generation Alpha we spoke to, they dislike studying history because they do not believe it is interesting nor relevant to them and their backgrounds.

Today’s high schoolers were in school when the first Black president of the United States was elected. They saw the first woman as a major party nominee for president, and they witnessed he first woman and first person of color was sworn in as vice president of the nation. They watched as protestors laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. And they saw (and participated in) movements to address racism, gun violence, voter rights, police reforms, and voter rights. Since birth, the students who find learning history boring have been living history themselves, and living it with gusto.

The latest NAEP dataset is another proof point that teaching American history the way we taught it a half century ago is grossly insufficient. Today’s learners simply don’t see value in learning from dusty textbooks about dead white male landowners. They want to see themselves in the history. They want to understand how they fit into our past. They want to be equipped with the knowledge to question, push back, and ensure they are getting the full picture and the full truth. They want to know the Untold History of our nation, and they want it delivered in the short-form videos they embrace on TikTok and YouTube. They want engaging content that they have some control over.

There are significant learning challenges before us. American history achievement dropping. There is no deying it. That means needing to amplify the growing need to transform the teaching and learning of American history. And it means sharing as complete a telling of history, including the contributions of women and people of color, as possible.

It also means considering the words of Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”

Learning, understanding, appreciating, and applying American history knowledge helps all of us construct the good place for all of us to live in. We just need to ensure that we all have the tools necessary for successful construction. That means embracing video content to improve the teaching and learning of American history.



Patrick Riccards

Father; founder and CEO of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; author of Dad in a Cheer Bow and Dadprovement books, education agitator