A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The de-emphasis of history education

Pulitzer-Prize winning author David McCullough is assailing the state of history literacy in our country.
Those who believe America is facing its darkest and most dangerous time since Sept. 11 are only showing their lack of knowledge of history, according to acclaimed historical writer David McCullough.

"There was no simpler time," he told a sold-out audience at Layton High School as part of Davis County's Davis Reads program. "It's a form of our present-day hubris."

McCullough, who has won two Pulitzer prizes and has written books about the Revolutionary War and influential presidents such as John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, encouraged people to instill in their children and grandchildren a sense of history.

"History is the exploration of character," he said. "We're not doing a good job of teaching history to our children and grandchildren for the past 25 years, and we've got to do something about it."

While teachers are the "most important people in our society," he said families can not let the teaching burden fall solely on them.

"The problem is us. We have to take part," he said.

He worries that a lack of historical knowledge will result in poor leaders for the future, as the great leaders of the past steeped themselves in history.

"History affected the idea of who they were and what was expected of them," he said. "We need to educate people to be leaders or we won't have the quality of leaders we once had."

In his many campus visits, McCullough has become increasingly disconcerted with the lack of historical knowledge students have, from not knowing George Washington was commander of the Continental Army to not realizing the 13 original colonies were all on the East Coast. "Anyone who graduates without history courses is not educated, and that should change."

Not only does history mold character, he said, but it enriches lives.

"Think what they're missing when they don't read history, the enlargement of the experience of being alive," he said. "The whole experience of human kind is there for us in letters and books."

I just love him.

History education is endangered in my own children's classrooms. I notice all kinds of emphasis on math content and test-taking strategies. I still don't see a lot of scope and sequence in their math instruction, but there are certainly untold hours spent on the subject. We could talk about that all day, but let's not stray from the point.

But history is often ignored. My elementary aged children have spent precious little time on learning about history or geography or economics-- in fact, my first-grader has not had ANY assignments brought home that deal with social studies, while my fourth-grader has covered one unit on state history, and that is all. Meanwhile, hours each day are devoted to test-taking skills as those high-stakes test loom in just a few days' time. Of course, schools can only do so much-- but it would help if they actually did something. The claim is often made, "What good is it to teach a kid history if he can't read?" But I insist that history not only can help interest kids in reading, but really, that it shouldn't be an either/or proposition. One doesn't see computer instruction sacrificed on the altar of NCLB, but the humanities are already hog-tied and facing the knife in some school districts.

History education is citizenship education. It is greatly troubling that it is being sacrificed, particularly in this time when we talk about a war on terrorism, for just one instance, but our students can have no idea who the terrorists are or where they came from or why they target western countries such as the United States. What is the record of the United States when it comes to supporting democracy in the Middle East? What does democracy mean? Where did it originate? How role has Iran played in world history, both in the distant and the more recent past? What caues impel the growth of terrorism? What military tactics do terrorists use? How has modern technology made fighting terrorism both more difficult and easier?

Or, closer to home: Who was the Baron de Montesquieu, and what impact did his theories have upon the structure of the US government? What does "checks and balances" mean? What are civil liberties? Why is there tension between liberty and security? What is the title of the head of the Department of Justice? What is executive privilege? What is the history of executive privilege? When was the Department of Veteran's Affairs created? What countries in the world have the most untapped reserves of petroleum?

These are all questions that history education should, indeed MUST to create an informed and involved citizenry which can hold government accountable by demanding that it be "of the people, by the people, and for the people." That promise is meaningless if the people are mired in ignorance.

There is nothing nobler, nor more crucial in today's world.

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At 3/21/07, 8:44 PM, Blogger educat said...

Yes, yes, and yes!! I'm constantly shocked how much talk I have to do just to get to the Historical context of the Literature we read.

To quote a mentor, "The Humanities are what make us human."

At 3/21/07, 8:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who do not learn from history are indeed doomed to repeat it.

At 3/21/07, 9:00 PM, Blogger QuakerDave said...

We just completed four days of NCLB-mandated state testing. One day of science testing, which does not impact on a student's placement in science classes in high school (I teach 8th grade). One day of math, and TWO days of Language 'n literacy, both of which impact on a student's high school schedule (if you fail, you get placed in remediation).

Our kids sit for 45 minutes a day in social studies class. Same as the others.

No test.

Go figure.

At 3/22/07, 8:54 PM, Blogger Ron Davison said...

History is the story of how the modern world was created. If you don't know history, you're clueless about how to change this modern world and are left with only two options: accept it as it is or mindlessly rebel against it.

At 3/24/07, 6:02 PM, Blogger Duez said...

It is always interesting to me that math, science, and reading/language arts are tested throughout elementary school years in Texas. But, history/SS is not.

What we are finding is elementary teachers who flat out admit to not even teaching history anymore.

Sad that the state tests can determine the importance of a vital subject in this way.

At 3/24/07, 6:23 PM, Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...

Could it be that all those pundits and politicians who cry that Americans don't get out and vote like they should are the same ones who're pushing high stakes testing down our throats? Get a clue folks, if people don't know how to be a citizen, don't know what history is, chances are they won't be voters...or at least educated ones.

At 3/27/07, 5:39 PM, Blogger EHT said...

Thanks for posting this....We are on Spring Break next week but when we return "the test" will be looming. Guess which subject are is last in the testing sequence? You guessed it....Social Studies.

Georgia is about to roll out their new Math standards so there is a heavy emphasis on math right now in my parts. All training, meetings, money for personal dev. etc. is all spent on math. I'm a non-person....I might as well be teaching basket weaving, and still I plug on.

At 3/28/07, 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But I insist that history not only can help interest kids in reading, but really, that it shouldn't be an either/or proposition.

Well, yeah :-)

Doesn't learning history include reading about it?

In fact, I'll make a stronger statement: Reading history will help the kids on their reading tests because non-fiction is frequently harder to read then fiction [specifically, using Dr. Donald Hayes' LEX metric, I have found *no* fiction with a LEX score above 0, while a lot of non-fiction has scores above 0. Larger LEX scores are harder].

I'm not suggesting dropping reading/literature, but I am suggesting that failing to read history negatively impacts students' ability to read. Which probably shows up as lower test scores.

I'm disappointed, but not surprised ...

-Mark Roulo

At 3/28/07, 6:28 PM, Blogger The Tour Marm said...

I have to keep emphasizing that I am not a classroom teacher; I teach on site and in buses.

After September 11th, I had to rethink my future. My profession was at a total standstill since the travel industry (especially students) was devastated.

I decided to stick with it as I felt that these student tour programs were of service to students and teachers. Teachers actually use these programs to cover what cannot be covered in class. And thwe're given complete freedom without interference from NCLB. That is why my programs are all geared to teaching plans, curricula, and objectives.

I've posted elsewhere that I no longer can assume that eighth graders (even in May or June) know how a bill is passed or very much about US or world history. It's shameful!

To think that in four years or so they will be voting, is scary!

Good people have to stay because all of our futures depend on it!

But I'm hanging in there even though I am making half of what I was in 2001, because I know I've made a difference in many lives; there have been so many who were affected by what they saw and experienced.

It's hard, but keep plodding; it does make a difference.

At 3/28/07, 8:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My brother, who is a serious armchair historian, talks frequently about the sad state of history education, from the elementary levels though high school. The curriculum K-12 is presented in a very uncoordinated manner - it's as if the elementary, middle and high school teachers never talk to each other with respect to what should be taught at the respective levels. Additionally, the PC movement has taken over the history curriculum to such a degree that students are not being taught the fundamental concepts about the workings of government and the tenets of citizenship, never mind the significant events that have shaped US history. As a person of color, I advocate strongly for a diversity of voices and experiences to be taught. That being said, to reject the significant contributions of the Founding Fathers to the creation of the United States is a travesty. I also take issue with the degree of proselytizing that many history teachers do, instead of teaching what students need to know. It should not be an either/or proposition. History class is not the platform for the teacher to extoll his political views. Just teach!

I also have a problem with the absence of geography education. Another travesty.

At 3/30/07, 12:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And if no one knows any history, History can be changed at will to promote/justify whatever agenda. Remember the "hockey-stick curve" of Global Warming (TM)?

"In Soviet Union is Future that is certain; is Past that is always changing."
-- Yakov Smirnov

"There is a Party slogan dealing with history: 'Whoever controls the Past controls the Future. Whoever controls the Present controls the Past.' And where does this 'Past' exist? In books and in the minds of men. And We, The Party, control all books, and We, The Party, control men's minds. So We, The Party, control The Past, and in doing so We, The Party, control the Future."
-- Comrade O'Brian, Inner Party, Airstrip One, Oceania, 1984


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