By Peter Berger
History is ideas come to life in a drama acted out by real people. Regrettably, many students instead view history class as an exercise in “copying notes” and regurgitating “memorized facts.” Too many policymakers, curriculum writers, and teachers condemn civics and history classes that bother with customary topics like the Virginia and New Jersey plans, the allegedly “dust-dry” proposals the founders debated at the Constitutional Convention.
Dust-dry? Only if you ignore George Washington’s sacrificial willingness to leave his home and retirement after eight years of war to lend his stature and integrity to the convention and new government. Only if you ignore Madison’s genius in crafting that new government, and his readiness to yield to others’ arguments for the greater good. Only if you ignore the assembled intellect, conviction, conciliation, human imperfection, and love of country.
I mentioned this “dust-dry” complaint to my eighth graders. They responded that the debate reflected the tension between state and federal power, and between big states and little states, that it was resolved by compromise, and that speaking of contemporary issues, we still contend about state and federal power, and compromise isn’t presently something our government representatives do well.
I recognize that not every student in the class could make all those connections and furnish as complete an answer. Experience has convinced me, though, that more students learn more history when I wrap the players, events, and ideas in the story they’re part of. Unfortunately, those same policymakers and curriculum writers reject chronological surveys as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Content is increasingly the last thing experts want in a history classroom, with critics faulting rigorous curricula as “the old paradigm” and “incredibly fact-riddled.”
Civics reformers caution against an emphasis on content and “academic performance” on the grounds that it discourages students from participating in government, as if we need more uninformed citizens who don’t know how government is supposed to work. Meanwhile, like-minded advocates describe history instruction as a choice between “facts” and “burning issues.” They mandate that history teachers “emphasize deep understanding rather than shallow knowledge.”
Inconveniently, understanding requires knowledge, and knowledge, whether shallow or deep, rests on facts. Students can’t express meaningful opinions about burning issues in history if they don’t know any history. Reformers forget that the only reason they themselves can talk intelligently about issues is their teachers taught them the facts they’re now advising teachers to skip.
In addition, stripping facts from history class — from any class — leaves students susceptible to malignant assertions of “alternative facts.”
No, you don’t need to know the date for every event. But dates help students track contemporaneous events. It’s good for them to know, for example, that Ferdinand and Isabella defeated Spain’s Muslim conquerors in 1492, which is why she had the cash and inclination to send Columbus in search of a new route to Asia. It helps if they know four score and seven because it means the United States nearly perished in one man’s lifetime. It helps if they know that in little more than one hundred years’ counting from its founding, the nation grew from a coastal agrarian toddler to the world’s preeminent industrial power. That way, knowing how swiftly we rose, they can recognize we could decline just as swiftly.
We’re talking about adolescents with little sense of time or chronology. You can’t expect students to distinguish between causes and effects if they don’t first learn the order in which things happened. That’s why they need to learn history as a chronological survey, a story.
Some reformers prescribe arranging history according to themes. But you can’t understand the 20th-century civil rights movement if you haven’t first studied the 18th-century Bill of Rights and the 19th-century Civil War.
Surveys needn’t be superficial. There’s a place in the story for General Washington’s appeal when his officer corps threatened mutiny against the Continental Congress. He tried unsuccessfully to read them a letter from Congress. “Gentlemen, you must pardon me,” he told them as he paused and dug for his spectacles, “for I have grown not only gray but almost blind in service to my country.” The rebellion ended as his officers wept.
There’s a place for President Washington’s willing surrender of power. There’s relevance in his farewell injunction that we “observe good faith and justice toward all nations,” regardless of “any temporary advantages” injustice might win us.
There’s a place for Mr. Lincoln’s second inaugural message and the personal burden he bore for the nation’s dead, his recognition that the war might justly continue until “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” and his plea that we act “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
There’s a place for Chief Joseph’s surrender and lament, “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
There’s a place for Woodrow Wilson’s commitment that the United States would stand in the 20th century as one among the “champions of the rights of mankind.”
The most recent nationwide National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test found more than half of American graduates lack even a basic understanding of American history. Barely thirteen percent are proficient.
If we’re wondering why so few citizens know our history, one reason might be that we stopped telling students our story.
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.