Of all the things American students don’t know, they don’t know American history worst. Just twelve percent of high school seniors could muster a proficient history score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Education reforms like No Child Left Behind compounded the problem. Mandated testing in English and math compelled officials to concentrate on those areas so their students’ math and reading scores would improve and their schools could escape the sanctions associated with the designation “failing.”
Some experts recommend broader enrollment in high school civics courses. Except today’s civics programs frequently accent “service learning” where students earn credit for volunteer work. There’s nothing wrong with helping your neighbors, but being a good citizen isn’t the same as knowing how government works.
Rampant multiculturalism has taken its toll, too. History courses shouldn’t minimize the contributions of women and minorities, but they also shouldn’t magnify anybody just because they’re a woman or a minority. Juan Seguin, a Mexican Texan, fought at the Alamo. Zitkala Sa was a Sioux musician. Both are featured on the cover of a mainstream history text. Who didn’t make the cover, and the curriculum, so they could?
We also overrate hands-on activities. The National Council of Social Studies honored a teacher for taking her fifth graders out on the playground to re-enact Pickett’s Charge. Unfortunately, loosing ten-year-olds to run at each other with sticks and toy guns doesn’t teach them much about the Civil War.
The worst blow struck against students’ history knowledge is education reform’s disdain for knowledge itself in favor of “thinking skills.” That’s why critics of a state’s history curriculum could condemn it as “incredibly fact riddled.” It’s why a teacher featured in NEA Today would portray history instruction as a choice between “facts” and “burning issues.”
It sounds swell to “consider how to make the world a better place,” but before students can discuss religious fundamentalism, they need to know the world’s religions. Before they can fathom the complexities of third world debt, they need to know how economies work. Before they can cure global warming, they need to know what the globe looks like.
Too many teachers forget that the only reason they’re equipped to talk about “burning issues” is some other teacher once taught them the basics they’re now trying to skip with their own students. We’re talking about students who don’t know the name of the ocean between us and Britain, or that we twice fought Britain, or that the Revolution happened before the Civil War, or what either was about. For them the past is an unchronological jumble. That’s when it’s not an unchronological void.
Before you can understand cause and effect, you need to know what happened in the right order. Before you can discuss the Bill of Rights, you have to know what it says.
Of course, first you have to have heard of it.
One allegedly model unit presents contrasting nineteenth century views of slavery. The unit’s stated primary objective is to teach that “bias may affect the accuracy of information.”
That might be your objective if you’re an English teacher, which I am. But if you’re a history teacher, which I also am, the primary objective of a unit about slavery before the Civil War should be teaching about slavery before the Civil War.
Understanding the information is the point.
Another sample unit about Saratoga includes a battle summary, a timeline of one soldier’s participation, some diary entries, and a fictionalized account of Ben Franklin’s diplomacy in France. The material looks interesting. Unfortunately, it would take eighth graders three weeks to get through it all.
I spend forty minutes on Saratoga. I teach them about the British strategy and the course of the battle. I describe the terrain and Benedict Arnold’s mad dash at the British line, but Saratoga, while important, isn’t worth one twelfth of the entire year. Not if I expect to teach the rest of United States history.
Given our highly charged political moment, it’s not surprising that history curricula and instruction are subject to widely divergent perspectives, filters, and biases. At one pole supporters of “patriotic education” object to what they describe as a “distorted and overly negative” presentation that disrespects our founders. At the other end of the spectrum, advocates call for a heightened focus on the role that racial injustice has played in America’s history.
I tell my students I believe we live in a great country. But I also believe in telling the truth. Patriotism means you love your country, not that you idealize or idolize your country. Love doesn’t require blindness, just patience and forgiveness.
My job is to teach history accurately. That includes my country’s faults, and slavery, Jim Crow’s legacy of inequity, and our Indian wars are part of the truth. As for the founders, I laud them as devoted, gifted, flawed mortals who created a wonder among the powers of the earth.
It’s both good and necessary to grapple with issues and trace historical themes. But before you can evaluate and form opinions, you first need to build a chronological foundation of facts, events, people, places, and ideas.
Many students, understandably, aren’t eager to do this.
Sadly, neither are many adults at the helm of public education.
And that’s our more serious problem.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.