American History 101

Don't Know Much About History
How we interpret the past.
May 17 2005 8:12 AM

American History 101


Dear Jon,

I approach the issues of teaching history in the schools from a somewhat different vantage point than you. Students do need to understand that the important issues in history continue to be hotly debated today by historians. Students also need to be protected from plodding textbooks that give off a phony aura of encyclopedic "truth" and that turn history into a deadly boring subject in which all the facts are already known. Students also need, to the greatest extent possible, to be able to imagine themselves into a past in which decisions were made without knowing how things would turn out.


Here are the basic problems of history in the schools today, as I see them:

One, every national assessment has shown that students don't know much history. On the authoritative National Assessment of Educational Progress, the scores for U.S. history are consistently the lowest of any subject tested; typically more than half of seniors score "below basic," the lowest possible rating. In no other subject do a majority of students register so little knowledge of a subject taught in school. Defenders of the status quo say that students have never known much history, but that hardly seems to be an intellectually respectable response, especially if you think that history is important, as we do.

Two, in most states and most schools, history has gotten submerged and smothered by social studies. We know what history is, even if we argue about the specific issues to be included or how to interpret them. Social studies, on the other hand, is a curricular smorgasbord that includes all sorts of studies, which collectively diminish the time available for history. Social-studies teachers treat history as only one of a dozen different "studies" that they cover, and by no means the most important. Worse, they emphasize concepts and ignore chronology, which makes hash of history.

Three, because of the dominance of social studies and the diminution of history, a large percentage of people who teach history have not studied history; instead, they have majored in social-studies education, a social science, communications, or any number of other fields, but not history. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that a majority of people teaching history do not have a major or a minor in history. You can understand that when the teacher does not have an in-depth knowledge of history, it is very difficult to expect him or her to have a secure grasp of complex historical issues and debates and to be able to raise probing questions of the conventional accounts.

Fourth, because of the dominance of social studies and the diminution of history, most state standards for social studies give short shrift to history. They are usually the product of the state social-studies leaders, who come from a wide variety of fields. The latest rating of state history standards was written by Sheldon Stern, historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston (his analysis was published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute). Stern found only six states (California, Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, Alabama, and Indiana) with exemplary history standards, where students actually encounter solid history. The history standards in 30 states were rated as weak or ineffective. Even in states with excellent standards, students may get meager history instruction. I heard today from a middle-school teacher in New York who surveyed 100 students and found that 95 of them had no knowledge of such basic facts as the capital of their state, the name of the governor, the identity of Churchill or Stalin, or when the Civil War or World War II were fought.

As our conversation proceeds, I hope we will have a chance to talk about some of the genuine problems that occur when history teachers try to incorporate the new social history. It turns out to be very difficult to teach multiple perspectives—those of housewives, feminists, slaves, workers, farmers, native Americans, free blacks in the antebellum South, Hispanics, plantation owners—when students don't have a basic grasp of the events and ideas, the scaffolding of American history. If you don't know the central events and players—the central narrative—it is difficult to understand the views and behaviors that diverge from the central narrative. How can you teach "multiple perspectives" when students don't know what happened in the first instance? Nor is it so easy to "teach the conflicts." When we teach the Holocaust, do we give equal time to those who deny that it even happened? When we teach about McCarthyism, do we give equal time to his supporters? When we teach about the Ku Klux Klan, should there be any time for their defenders? Should there be equal time for abolitionists and pro-slavery voices? This goes to the issue of multiple perspectives, but it raises another important issue. That is, that teachers and historians who write standards need help in figuring out not only what to include but what to leave out. That is one of the most difficult issues in teaching history, and historians have not been much help to school people in differentiating what is most important from what is least important.




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