David Broder: What Harry Potter Can Teach Us About Teaching History

Roundup: Talking About History

David Broder, in the Wa Po (7-28-05):

Along with millions of others, my granddaughters Lauren, Nicole and Julia eagerly tore open the boxes containing"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" as soon as the books arrived at the airport near the cabin where they were on vacation. They then disappeared into their rooms -- barely to reappear for the next 24 hours, while they were devouring the sixth in the best-selling series.

And thereby they proved David McCullough's point. Late last month, the prolific historian had said in a Senate hearing that his examination of school history textbooks had shown a disquieting trend. Over the years, he said, he has noticed that the typeface in those books is growing larger, the illustrations are more lavish and the content is shrinking. The authors and the teachers using these textbooks"seem to assume that students don't like to read," he said,"and then Harry Potter comes along and blows it all away."

McCullough, whose latest volume,"1776," is a nonfiction bestseller, was the star witness at a hearing convened by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Ted Kennedy to air their concerns about what they called"U.S. History: Our Worst Subject?"

Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, noted that"according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as 'the nation's report card,' fewer students have just a basic understanding of American history than have a basic understanding of any other subject which we test -- including math, science and reading."

Charles Smith, the executive director of the NAEP governing board, spelled out what that means. In 2001, the last time the American history test was given, 57 percent of 12th-graders scored"below basic" in the subject.

"This means," he said,"that the majority of 12th graders did not know, for example, that the Monroe Doctrine expressed opposition to European colonization in the Americas at the early part of the 19th century; how government spending during the Great Depression affected the economy; and that the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. in World War II."

Kennedy added that the historian emeritus at his brother's presidential library in Boston had reported that nine states have no standards for teaching American history and 22 others have standards he regarded as weak....

Just as Harry Potter's extraordinary success demonstrates young people's hunger for a compelling narrative, other factors suggest ways that history can be made vivid. A Smithsonian Institution official testified that its program last year offered 57,000 teachers an opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with scholars doing primary-source research work -- an experience they can then share with their students.

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