American History 101

The Glut of Unqualified History Teachers
How we interpret the past.
May 18 2005 1:01 PM

American History 101

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Dear Jon,

I am flabbergasted that you think that the lack of well-educated history teachers is a problem equivalent to not having a working bathroom. Our topic is not whether the budgets of schools are adequate or whether enough money is spent on maintenance. We are talking about teaching history.

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It is great to have wonderful ideas about how students can explore the conflicts in history—of course, they should. But how can a teacher lead this kind of in-depth study if the teacher doesn't know much history? Don't you think the qualifications of history teachers bear some relationship to what happens in the history classroom?

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (1998) show that 55.6 percent of those who teach two or more classes of social studies in grades 9-12 do not have either a major or a minor in history. (There is no reason to believe that the situation has improved since these data were collected.) The only field in which such a large proportion of teachers are teaching "out of field" (i.e., lacking either a minor or major in the subject they are teaching) is the physical sciences.

How is someone with a degree in secondary-school administration or physical education or journalism likely to teach history when they are assigned to do it? They will stick closely to the textbook. The typical high-school textbook allots five to 10 pages to Reconstruction. One textbook devotes 23 pages to the subject, but nearly half that space is filled with pictures and sidebars, not text. U.S. history textbooks are not typically devoted to "teaching the conflict" or to in-depth consideration of controversial questions. Better textbooks would help, but the best way to improve history teaching is to have teachers who have studied history and know how to deal with complex issues and how to find primary sources and use them well.

You seem to think I have a problem with teaching anything more than facts and dates. You are wrong. I wrote the section in the California history framework on teaching Reconstruction that says:

Students should analyze how events during and after Reconstruction raised and then dashed the hopes of black Americans for full equality. They should understand how the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution were undermined by the courts and political interests. They should learn how slavery was replaced by black peonage, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and other legal restrictions on the rights of blacks, capped by the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 ("separate but equal"). Racism prevailed, enforced by lynch mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, and popular sentiment. Students should also understand the connection between these amendments and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Although undermined by the courts a century ago, these amendments became the basis for all civil rights progress in the twentieth century.

This raises the issues, but here too it takes a well-educated teacher to bring these developments to life, to enable students to understand the connection among events, and to truly grasp the importance of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments.

Of course, freedom and democracy should be at the center of teaching U.S. history. That is why I disagree with your characterization of the issues in the Cold War period. Certainly students should learn that McCarthy trampled on people's civil rights, and they should learn why many people in his era (not Ann Coulter, in our time) supported him, and also why the U.S. Senate voted to condemn him.

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But if freedom and democracy truly are at the center of the curriculum, then students must learn that the Soviet Union was a cruel, repressive society that trampled on the rights of its people, that maintained a vast network of prison camps for dissidents, that did not permit free elections or an independent judiciary or a free press or freedom of speech. As part of an American history course, students need to see how foreign events relate to domestic ones; they need to understand the rise of the dictatorships in Germany, Russia, and Japan as background for comprehending America's role in World War II. You might suggest to "teach the conflict" by assigning Stalin's writings, but I would hope teachers would find time to assign writings by such people as Andrei Sakharov, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, as well as histories like Robert Conquest's The Great Terror and Anne Applebaum's Gulag. The Cold War was about a lot more than McCarthyism and events on the home front; it was a sustained struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism. If students don't understand that, they won't understand much about the most important events of the 20th century. Vladimir Putin said the other day that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. Now, that would make a fascinating subject to debate in an American history or world history classroom!

I agree that the central theme in teaching history is freedom. Ideally I would like to see both U.S. history and world history taught from that perspective. But there is no getting away from the fact that teachers will not be able to bring the study of history to life unless they know enough history to get beyond whatever the textbook says.

Diane

 Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and is the author ofThe Language Police. She was the primary writer for the California History/Social Science Framework adopted by the State Board of Education in 1988 and has served as consultant for history curriculum to several other states.

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