Jacquelyn Hall: Don't Know History: Here's Why

Roundup: Talking About History

Jacquelyn Hall, president of the Organization of American Historians and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, in the Boston Globe (March 20, 2004):

ARE TODAY'S students knuckleheads when it comes to American history? Is democracy endangered as a result? Pointing to the dismal results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, educational watchdogs across the political spectrum say yes.

As president of the Organization of American Historians, which will hold its national convention in Boston next week, I'm glad to see history education get the attention it deserves. But how useful is it to bash the younger generation for what they don't know?

The current brouhaha over students' poor scores is only the latest round of hand-wringing about "historical illiteracy" and "civic ignorance." The problem is that no one bothers to "think historically" about these test results. When we look back at a century of large-scale tests of historical knowledge, we find little difference between today's high school students and their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

The reason, says Stanford education professor Sam Wineberg in the current issue of the Oral History Association's Journal of American History, is that the "system is rigged." Testing companies devise multiple-choice questions to guarantee that only a few students do well, a few badly, and most fall in the mediocre range. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is supposed to be different. But, according to Wineberg, these practices are so entrenched that they affect these results as well.

And yet alarmists continue to use these tests to whip up crises which, they argue, can only be resolved by more standardized tests and rigid state standards mandating what every child should know. We can all agree that students need a core knowledge of American history. But for that knowledge to stick, it must have some connection to their lives. The real challenge is to use what students do know -- the sense of history they glean from family stories, museums, historic sites, films, and television to engage them in the lifechanging process of learning to "think historically."

Historical thinking involves analyzing evidence, weighing conflicting interpretations, discerning casuality, developing arguments, and contextualizing the present in the light of the past. Beyond that, history is a great human drama, filled with conflict, contingency, transcendence and tragedy.

But if most adults remember history as the most boring subject they studied in school, they obviously missed out on both the skills and the drama. And yet Americans in record numbers are engaging with the past as visitors to museums and historic sites, viewers of the History Channel, and the like. It is not history that bores them, but the teaching of history in the schools.

One problem is obvious: More than 80 percent of those who are assigned to teach history at the middle and high school levels did not major, or even minor, in history. Many become creative and effective history teachers nonetheless. But we need teachers with a deep understanding of their subject matter. Then we need to make sure they aren't handcuffed by deadly textbooks and unwieldy, mandatory standards.

Instead of joining forces with dedicated history educators to push for such policy-level changes, too many pundits use "historical illiteracy" to stoke the culture wars. They claim that college professors are brainwashing future teachers into teaching "critical thinking" instead of facts and ignoring the Founding Fathers in favor of women, blacks, and working people.

In fact, numerous studies show that the vast majority of teachers still spend too much time drilling students on names and dates. Moreover, the problem is not that K-12 teachers have been indoctrinated by rogue college professors, but that most never studied history at all.

A second problem is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which mandates high-stakes testing in math and reading but not history. This puts history educators in a bind. The pressure to "teach to the test" threatens to squeeze history out of the curriculum altogether. But nothing could do more to kill students' interest than adding a history test that relies on formulaic writing and memorization. Massachusetts will soon confront this dilemma, when its US history standards are incorporated into the statewide MCAS.

The K-12 teachers, students, professors, and public historians who will gather in Boston will debate these issues and more. They will also weave the stories and narratives that allow us to make sense of the social world.

The convention theme is "American Revolutions," and one goal is to use the revolutions in historical knowledge that have occurred in the past 40 years to enliven the teaching of American history. A true education requires far more than prepackaged tests and a box of No. 2 pencils.

comments powered by Disqus