Why History is Hard — and Dangerous — to Teach and how to Get Kids to Stop Thinking it is ‘Boring and Useless’Roundup
tags: history education, education, students
Edward Ayers is a renowned Civil War scholar who currently serves as the executive director of New American History at the University of Richmond, where he was president from 2007 to 2015. Ayers has been named National Professor of the Year and served as president of the Organization of American Historians. In July 2013, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony. He is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming “Southern Journey: The Migrations of the American South, 1790-2020.”
In perhaps three-quarters of the nation’s schools, Stanford University’s Larry Cuban, a leading scholar of history education suggests, history is still taught this way, as it has been for generations, in ways that makes students think that history is a turgid list of names and dates.
Even though waves of reformers have urged history teachers to emulate the techniques and standards of history writers, the gap between high school history and the history produced by academic historians has in fact grown steadily wider. Historical scholarship has been flourishing for the last half century, energized by the inclusion of new subjects and methods.
The history of African Americans and other ethnicities, of women and gender, of culture and economics — all have been and still are producing groundbreaking work, even as traditional topics such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II remain topics of vital scholarship.
Contrary to stereotype, many of the books are compelling, even exciting. Historians challenge and revise one another not because they carry hidden “opinions” and “biases,” as students are taught, but because they learn new things from new evidence or from revisiting familiar evidence with new questions.
Little of this exciting work reaches high school students. Freshmen in college, even those coming from excellent secondary schools, often have no idea that historians discover new knowledge every day.
Most have never read, or even know of, scholarship that has remade the ways we think about slavery, say, or the American environment. They imagine that “history” is the highly processed material in their textbooks, vetted by state boards and corporate focus groups so that they challenge no one, or perhaps a “people’s history” that inverts the heroes.
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