Students today don't know enough

tags: history crisis

John Fea at The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog:  On Saturday we ran a post titled “How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: ‘Reimagine Everything.” One of the comments on that post came from veteran U.S. survey instructor John Haas, Professor of History at Bethel College in Indiana.  It was good that I decided to publish it here as a separate post.  Enjoy.  

I recall a much-heralded teacher of undergraduates–his 8 AM survey courses were famous for filling up on the first day of enrollment–commenting when he received the university’s best teacher award, “I teach an ancient discipline in an ancient way. History isn’t broken, and there’s no need to fix it.”

If we’re just speculating, I would mention several challenges or mistakes that afflict the history survey today:

1. Specific to the survey, the American past is far more terra incognita for today’s students than it has perhaps ever been. The average freshman or sophomore comes to the survey with very little background knowledge–When was the Revolution? Who were we fighting? Why? Who won? and etc. are all mystifying questions in many cases–and if in our lecturing we’re assuming basic historical or geographical knowledge of the kind high school graduates once possessed, it will make our lectures incomprehensible. One has to work very hard, actually, to assume nothing. Everything has to be explained. This also goes for current events. If we rely on analogies drawn between the past we are explaining and a present we assume they are familiar with, our explanation will fail. Not long ago I was lecturing on the Revolution and mentioned some ways in which the Americans shared the advantages that the Taliban enjoy, and the looks on their faces indicated perplexity, so I asked, “Who can tell me who the Taliban are?” No one knew. (US foreign policy over the past 50 years or so is a total blank for almost all of them.) I mentioned Jerry Falwell the other day and no one–this at an evangelical college–knew who he was (Sr. or Jr.) The mental world of our students is essentially unpopulated.

2. Similarly, I’ve found that I really need to watch my vocabulary. It is not just technical terms that lose them. Words I would have never thought the least bit arcane are unknown to them. Once I used the term “affluent,” and someone asked what that was. I put it to the class. No one knew. I had a student who was perplexed by the word “nevertheless.” I’ve come to realize that unless I watch my analogies, references, allusions and vocabulary very carefully, it is quite easy to fill my lectures with so many unfamiliar or unknown elements that the students quickly become mentally exhausted. Of course, that they are loathe to indicate when they don’t know something you are assuming makes it all the more difficult, because it means I have to guess.

3. The use of PowerPoint has many downsides especially, I think, in history. This depends, of course, on how the PowerPoint is used and how one teaches. There are many ways in which it’s great. But in other places, it’s quite destructive. If, eg, one throws up a slide with 5 or 10 bullet points, one has undermined the element of suspense that makes story-telling a compelling experience. Instead of a drama or mystery to be unfolded orally in real time, the past has become a list of sentences that the student needs to quickly copy down before the slide disappears and the next one arrives. Even with something as simple as a map, the very evident superiority of the PowerPoint slide is undermined by the disappearance of the human dimension: Watching someone draw a map (or try to) is more compelling and interesting, as a process, than someone hitting a button and putting up a slide (even though the slide is a much better representation). Much of the human dimension of teaching (the quirks and foibles) have been erased from the classroom by technology, and the space has become efficient, accurate, and sterile. After reading Patrick Allitt’s book a few years ago, I began experimenting with devoting one class a week to still pictures and discussing them (as he describes doing in his book). I thought it was a lot of fun, and assumed students would like it too (“Hey, look! Pictures!”) But there is a downside here, too, as it removes opportunities for students to employ their imaginations (Andre Gregory once explained that that’s why the movie “My Dinner with Andre” is so entertaining–it lures the watcher into activating their imaginations).

4. There are no doubt other things affecting the course that are out of our control. I have found in the last couple years that interest in US foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East (two subjects I often teach courses on) had really dried up. During the Bush II years students were cramming into these classes, but over the Obama years interest declined and now it’s at the lowest ebb I’ve seen in my teaching career (we’ve actually ceased offering the course on the Middle East and North Africa). The way the course were taught remained essentially the same, and they were very well-received, so I can only assume that external factors have changed: We are no longer as a nation pursuing the remaking of the Middle East as a national project; there are wars aplenty, but there’s no effort to enlist the support or even interest of the population; the wars for their part have no narrative arc leading to successful or satisfying conclusions; and etc. I wonder, in addition, if this sense that the plot has been lost, or that there’s not a lot to feel good about, or similar affective and emotional dimensions to the topic, hasn’t impacted the study of US history as a whole? The history of a nation that elects a Barack Obama, eg, is more attractive as a subject to investigate than one that terminates in Donald Trump (to many students that is).

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