Face-Off on History Education: Jon Wiener Vs. Diane Ravitch

Roundup: Talking About History

A debate at Slate.com between Jon Wiener and Diane Ravitch (week of May 16, 2005):

[Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and is the author of The 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. Jon Wiener is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a contributing editor of the Nation, and is the author, most recently, of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower.]

Dear Diane,

Debates about how much American students know about their own history, and about how our citizens should be taught what they don't know, are anything but abstract ones these days. Before we get down to the business of discussing those questions, let me set the current scene. President Bush campaigned in 2004 with the argument that we were fighting in Iraq for freedom and democracy, and that America was on a historic mission. Some opponents expressed skepticism about that, but the president's re-election suggests that a majority of voters accept what historians might call this Wilsonian vision as a justification for war. They did this despite the fact that past wars often turned out differently from what presidents promised at the beginning, despite what we might call the lessons of history.

While "the lessons of history" provide no simple solutions to today's problems and policy conflicts, an effective democracy requires some knowledge on the part of its citizens of the nation's past. Of course, "the lessons of history" are often disputed—the causes of the Civil War, the legitimacy of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what we learned from Vietnam. That is why the best approach in the classroom is, as educators say, to "teach the conflicts." Teachers ought to say where they stand, and why. But they also have an obligation to be fair—to present the best arguments and evidence for the interpretations they disagree with. Then we should invite students to think for themselves.

"Teach the conflicts" was first proposed by Gerald Graff almost 20 years ago; his strategy applied to teaching not just history but all of the humanities. At a time when the humanities were engaged in a protracted battle between traditionalists and postmodernists, Graff offered a way out; he argued that honesty requires teaching about debates among schools of interpretation. Not surprisingly, some traditionalists objected, on the grounds that teaching the conflicts was a subversive way to advance the forces of relativism—and some postmodernists objected on the grounds that traditional approaches to "truth" had been rendered obsolete. Yet teaching the conflicts indisputably makes for great pedagogy because it calls on students to engage in critical thinking themselves....

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. ...

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