What parts of U.S. history are the most "important" for kids to know?

This sprang from a segment on Jimmy Kimmel the other night where people were asked questions about both Star Wars and U.S. history, and in one of those subjects people did quite well. This prompted me to wonder: what parts of history should the average citizen know. Assume this person finished high school and has no interest in the subject. What areas/events should their mandatory classes have covered? The Civil War? Revolutionary War? Teapot Dome? WW1 & 2? Watergate? Jan 6th?

You asked for U.S. History: So I’m not sure if you would consider any events on the North American continent prior to the formation of the United States government to be off topic.

I’d wish that the average citizen would be able to relate their family history to the major areas/events - and from there maybe gain a deeper interest in previous generations.

This sounds like an excellent baseline.

Every student that graduates high school should have a basic understanding of: the causes and significant events of the major wars the U.S. has participated in; the major additions to the territory of the United States; the major events of the civil rights and women’s rights movements; the great depression; the cold war; recognize significant supreme court decisions; and be able to recognize the names of each of the presidents and put them into a general timeline (not necessarily in order, but pre-civil war, post WWII, etc.).

The list of events all students should know is fairly long and includes, in addition to the list in the OP, key events , in immigration, the economy, , foreign affairs, and in the ongoing quest for equality.

But the real question is WHAT do we want students to know about these things? Just identifying the Civil War isn’t helpful. Being able to explain the causes of the war would be a step in the right direction. Being able to recognize similarities between the thinking that led to the Civil War and the mindset of Americans today is even better.

And OP, the basic duty of US history teachers is to MAKE history interesting and relevant to students. Show me students who don’t give a rip about history and find it boring and irrelevant and I’ll show you students who’ve had bad teachers.

Beware, though: get kids interested and immersed in the Scottsboro case or able to understand the dilemma faced by young men who were drafted during the Vietnam War, and you’ll get targeted by the anti-education masses.

1.The arrival of Europeans in N.Americas, who was here before, how they interacted with each other.

  1. Slavery, how it started, how it impacted and impacts US politics and culture;

  2. Split from Britain, why it happens as it did, drafting of founding documents, how establishment of US fits into global history (what was happening elsewhere at this time).

  3. Rise of US as global power, role in Napoleonic wars

  4. Civil War, it’s causes and legacy (troop movements and battles are not necessary, just big trends); reconstruction

  5. Jim Crow and systemic racism, the how and why of it

  6. Rise of American hegemony, World Wars

  7. Cold War and its impact

  8. Post Cold War and decline.

Teapot Dome? Seriously?

I wanted to throw something less serious in the mix. And it’s a good example of corruption.

OK - I’ll toss out a WAG and say Harding? But really not sure.

I don’t know off the top of my head what example of government corruption I would find most important to teach. And I don’t know if that sort of example is more important than the run of the. mill influence peddling.

Overall - instead of specific events, I’d prefer less of a focus on “American exceptionalism.” No, we don’t have to don hair shirts. But we’re really no better than most other nations. Just really lucky in our location and natural resources.

It shouldn’t take long to go through the timeline and point out the major events. Some of the details may be interesting like life in colonial times and the lives and accomplishments of most presidents, but I think those things aren’t that important to spend much time on until we get to the 20th century. Everything that happened before then has little application to the lives of people now. And it is mostly the post WWII where the details are important. It’s hard enough to kids to remember the details, if they can’t relate history to their own lives it’s not important to them. And they’re not buying that story about how those dead guys wearing funny clothes started the course of events that eventually led up to Star Wars movies 200 years later. It’s not that they can’t understand it, they just don’t care.

When I was lad in school each year we covered American history, but virtually nothing in the 20th century. The school year would run out before we could get that far and the next year we’d start over in colonial days and cover it all again in more detail. And really nothing prior to the European invasion was covered. Only the few typical stories about Native Americans would be related, Pocahontas, Squanto, and Sacajawea were there, maybe Geronimo and Sitting Bull mentioned, but apparently not one other Native American even had a name.

I graduated in 2014, and in U.S. History we sort of ended with the 1960s. I don’t think we covered Nixon’s impeachment for example, but we did cover the Bay of Pigs, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the Civil Rights Movement. The Vietnam War may have been mentioned in passing, since I remember at the end of the semester we watched a Woodstock documentary taken from the History channel.

Nothing whatsoever about Iraq or Afghanistan, or US-Israel relations, or the Middle East in general.


Out of curiosity, was Kent State mentioned? My group was quite surprised to hear about it.

I don’t think so. I know about it from Neil Young.

We knew there was a peace movement for the Vietnam War but I think of the chapters we were assigned out of our textbook, there was like one page. We certainly didn’t have a quiz dedicated to the war and domestic response.


It’s kind of like a math class teaching addition, subtraction and multiplication but not bothering to teach division.

Well, some later events would be covered in Government or World History. Like Nixon & Clinton’s scandals, those were covered in Govt. senior year. Less as history and more as, this is how government works. Reaganism and supply side economics was covered in economics.

On the other hand I don’t think we learned that Newt Gingrich ever existed, or about Jimmy Carter’s hostage situation, or the Iran-Contra affair. We covered the Syrian civil war and the (2014) invasion of Ukraine a little in government under the heading of current events (I guess the latter would have been college), and that involved a little background such as the Soviet Union breaking up.

In world history there was a whole week dedicated to terrorism which involved, among other things, watching an unsettling documentary of 9/11. Of course World History didn’t make it all the way to the 21st century; more like WWII and selected few events after. We covered terrorism in September when the course was literally in the stone age. Our class was old enough to have remembered the actual day, but not what it was all about.


It’s impossible to fit in all “important” events in U.S. (or world) history unless you take out all other subjects and/or don’t care if anyone retains any of the knowledge. Knowledge of some of the major milestones and roots of today’s issues is a good goal, but a more important goal is to teach grade appropriate skills for how we know what we know and how “this is important” is a value judgement.

We DID cover the Teapot Dome scandal. We looked at political cartoons from the day and everything.


I personally don’t think the problem is what is taught, it’s how it is taught. I hated history classes in school. It was only much later that I developed an interest in history. I thought maybe it was just me and changing interests or whatever, but then I happened to pick up a modern history book and was just struck by how mind-numbingly boring the text was. It’s almost like they go out of their way to teach history in the least interesting way possible. No wonder no one remembers it.

I’m curious if they covered the draft lottery system. One of my most vivid memories of the era is all the parents with draft age sons getting together to watch the drawings……so they would have the support of friends if their son got a really low number. I was a teenager and that one stuck with me because of the sheer surreal horror of it all.

Burning flags and draft cards were discussed in government, when learning about the First Amendment. Not so much for history as for learning about constitutional rights and where they stop.

I technically signed up for ‘the draft’ in high school, IIRC. I believe we were told it was the law.