Blogs > Liberty and Power > Skipping ahead a couple centuries...

Jan 7, 2004 6:02 pm

Skipping ahead a couple centuries...

According to an article Sunday in the Duluth News Tribune, the proposed Minnesota social studies standards would greatly increase the scope of what Duluth high school students would study. Says one teacher,
"Today, we do from about Reconstruction to as close as we can get to present day. I'm going to tell you that's a hustle."
That's 130 years. And why start at Reconstruction? Well, it's because it's not important to know Appomattox, Grant and Lee.
"If all kids are asked to do is to memorize facts, not many of us are good at that. They say, 'I don't memorize well,' and I say, 'You shouldn't have to. You should understand it.'

"If you don't know the names and the dates, well that's OK if you can understand the significance of, say, the Civil War, and how the ramifications are affecting current history."

Her department head concurs:
"What's the point in memorizing it if you don't understand it? Yes, the facts are important, but you have to be able to apply those facts with meaning, knowledge and understanding."
What is their of understanding, though, when they know no facts? Is it fear of a standardized exam that troubles these teachers? Critical thinking is not a substitute for core knowledge -- it needs knowledge as a building block.

UPDATE: In a comment on this post at SCSU Scholars, David Foster notes this false dichotomy:

The popular educratic idea that there is such a thing as"thinking ability" totally divorced from any referrants is misleading at best.

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mark safranski - 1/8/2004

The Facts vs. Thinking debate is really a false dichotomy. While there are programs out there that stress rote memorization or all touchy-feely content thin exercises both extremes do their students a considerable disservice.

Secondary students need at least a basic command of Western culture, history, science and math but they should be thinking, analyzing and debating substantive material along the way. History and Social Studies teachers should be using their classroom texts only as reference points and initial overviews for examining primary source material in context instead of trying to make the textbook the curriculum of the course. The latter is all too common because of the number of out-of-field under- and unqualified instructors in High Schools attempting to teach history who need a crutch to stay " a chapter ahead " of their students.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/8/2004

I can't speak to the actual beliefs of those quoted, but the comment about the comparative meaningless of facts when they stand alone is quite reasonable. It need not indicate a dismissal of facts.

Lincoln is killed in Ford's theater is trivia unless one knows the importance of the act. To know that importance means knowing a large number of facts concerning the Civil War, sectionalism, and slavery, among many other things.

To avoid the trivia of rote memorization, students need to know stories (I'm deliberately using simple terms here) and hopefully learn how to construct stories of the past, based on facts and from logical perspectives, and to analyize the stories constructed by others.

By the way, the comment about Reconstruction seems cheap (unless someone actually said the Civil War is unimportant, which would be horrifying)

Rightly or wrongly, 1865 has long been the dividing point in a two-semester survey. The main problem is not the dividing point (though I prefer 1877) but that two-semesters is far too short a time any more. When I was an undergraduate, the second semester went--theoretically--to 1970. I now teach one that runs from 1877 to 2003, theoretically.

It really does not work, particularly if you want students to be learning enough facts to understand the times.