American Enterprise Institute: Why Students Hate History

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Dr. Craig is the director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (

On October 1, 2002 the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy
Research (AEI) conducted a forum, "Why Is U.S. History Still a Mystery to
Our Children? And What Should They Know About America's Past?" AEI senior
fellow Lynne V. Cheney moderated a panel discussion that included Wilfred
McClay (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga), Jesus Garcia (University
of Kentucky and incoming President of the National Council for the Social
Studies), Peter Gibbon (Harvard University), and David Warren Saxe
(Pennsylvania State University).

After introductory remarks, Cheney set the framework for the
discussion. She noted that the most recent National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) for U.S. history (see "NAEP Issues The Nation's
Report Card: U.S. History 2001" in NCC WASHINGTON UPDATE, Vol 8, #16, May
9, 2002 ) suggests that large numbers of secondary school students are
"below basic" in their knowledge of history. She posed the question to the
panelists: Why is student understanding of American history so low and what
can be done to improve the situation?

Professor McClay delivered the keynote presentation. In his thoughtful
comments, McClay discussed the relationship of history to memory and stated
that recent standardized test results suggest that students not only lack a
knowledge of basic facts but also harbor an antipathy toward historical
consciousness. To improve the situation he suggested less reliance on
standardized textbooks, and greater use of history books written by superb
narrative chroniclers. Secondary students "yawn," he said, when scholarly
conflicts are raised in the classroom, and, consequently, he believed there
was a need for greater selectivity on what teachers should emphasize when
in the classroom.

The other members of the panel commented on McClay's paper and then added
their own views on the roots of the problems with teaching history. David
Warren Saxe focused his thoughts on state teaching standards and the need
to better ground teachers in the basic story of American history. He
viewed teaching young people as "a national security issue" and suggested
stronger certification standards for teachers and standardized testing for

Professor Garcia defended the need to better integrate the teaching of
history into social studies curricula and suggested a need to look more
holistically at the nature of the problem and the challenges teachers face
in today's classrooms. He questioned the "quick fix solutions" often
proffered by states to address the economic realities of state budgets. He
also noted that workplaces do not value teacher effectiveness, but rather
offer low teacher wages and over crowded classrooms that collectively fail
to promote teacher excellence. Garcia questioned the effectiveness of
standardized testing which all too often emphasize, "factual recall rather
than conceptual learning."

Professor Gibbon, author of "A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision
of Greatness" (2002), noted that while researching his book he made
hundreds of visits to classrooms, and found that "teaching of history is
uneven" in both public and private schools. Because students are growing
up in a "visual, celebrity culture" it is difficult to hold their
attention. He observed that more often than not, teachers present a "sour
view of American history" and that it "permeates our past" and thus gives
students "a pessimistic view of history, the present, and the future." He
suggested there ought to be less emphasis on the teaching of "social
movements" and the "dark side of history" and more emphasis on individual
achievements of and what he terms "American heros."

After the formal presentations, Cheney kicked off the general discussion by
asking each panelist to identify the one thing they would do to change how
history is taught in the schools. McClay would get rid of standardized
textbooks; Saxe would improve teacher education; Garcia would focus on
enhancing teaching skills; and Gibbon would cut the size of classes and
raise society's admiration for the teaching profession in terms of status,
pay, and respect. Cheney stated that she would like to see greater
emphasis on teacher "pre-service preparation."

Discussion questions and comments from the audience focused on perceptions
of "textbook ineffectuality," effects of "teaching to the test," "teaching
the dark side of history," and how best to approach controversy in the

C-Span was on hand and taped the forum. Audio tapes are available from AEI
[(202) 862-5800] and a transcript is expected to be posted on the AEI
webpage in about a week; for a copy refer to the web site at:

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More Comments:

J. Leyendecker - 7/25/2003

Because History teachers are boring!

Janine R. Browne - 6/17/2003

I am desperately searching for an excellent homeschooling curriculum that will cover all areas of concern that our children lack in the public schools. Such as: able to write an essay; write a letter; able to speak correctly; know history facts w/o a slant; My son will be starting the 10th grade. Do you have any suggestions. By the way if you have a Christian based curriculum suggetion you won't have a law suit on your hands! Ha! Ha!

Thankyou so much!

Janine R. Browne