The State of History Education

Jay Leno had a bit called “Jaywalking” on the Tonight Show where he would go out and talk to a bunch of regular people and often would ask them basic questions about current events and US history, at which they failed miserably.

Following in that tradition, PoliTech, a campus group at Texas Tech University, took to the campus sidewalks and asked several students some basic questions, with pretty much the same results.

Let’s remember that these are university students who have recently graduated from high school.  How tough is it to remember which two sides fought the Civil War, and who the American Colonies fought against in the Revolution?  It’s not that these kids are dumb.  They aren’t.  They either weren’t required to learn this information or they weren’t taught it in a manner that engaged them.  I’m not suggesting that these particular students are representative of all US university students, but it seems like it’s becoming more common.

As a nation, we are deemphasizing the study of history in favor of other pursuits.  Some will blame standardized testing.  But the problem is prioritization.  History education isn’t getting the priority it should.  Sure, there are still students who are interested in history, but shouldn’t every student, even those without an interest in history, understand the basic facts of American History for no other reason than so it’s harder for politicians to fool them by distorting history?

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10 comments

  1. “As a nation, we are deemphasizing the study of history in favor of other pursuits. Some will blame standardized testing. But the problem is prioritization. History education isn’t getting the priority it should”

    So true.

  2. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Very funny if it weren’t so sad. Everyone knew who Brad Pitt is married to but not who we won our independence from. Chet Huntley — your predictions from the 60s have come true. And it’s not just the tests but the state curriculums that parallel the tests. If it ain’t on the test, it’s not in the curriculum, hence it doesn’t get taught. Here in Michigan, U.S. History generally starts at the end of WWII. It goes back to the global studies concept which began in the 90s. The world we live in today, proponents say, has been shaped largely by events of the past 80 years. I’d like to see a copy of the social studies MEAP test and see what questions are on it. Probably won’t happen as the testing people keep them under lock and key.

  3. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    As a community college history teacher I ask my students how they feel about history. Most of them like history as an idea, but do not like the way it was taught to them. This opinion is borne out by the millions of visitors to our national parks, the battlefields, museums, and attendance at all kinds of events related to history. People love history. They just dislike how they get taught history for the most part.

    Let’s keep in mind that over half (HALF) of all history teachers in the secondary schools do not have a history degree. No major in history, no minor in history, just a four year degree in some subject that led to a teaching certificate. They then take a state content test and voila! they’re allowed to teach history. Why am I not surprised that history education falters in our secondary schools?

    If you think that is bad, then consider this. At the college level instructors do not need nor do they usually have any teaching experience fresh out of school. All they need is a MA in History. Currently with the glut of MAs and PhDs in history out there experienced teachers are being hired, but what kind of experience do they have? If a teacher stands there for an hour and lectures the entire time every class period the transfer of knowledge is minimal. The students dislike this style, yet they have no control over it. All they can do is not take a history class again.

    There are several projects underway across the country where different teaching methods are being employed to change the way history is taught. This pedagogy has different names, but one of the main features involved with it is the use of primary sources in the classroom. The goal is to get students to understand some of the historical analysis so they can appreciate history for what it is.

    I am developing a variant of this that I call the Interactive Learning model. Lectures still exist, but their length is chopped down. Group discussions are major components. Students are given responsibility for their learning. Reading and writing are major components of this model. Question and discussion techniques are involved. In short, develop a learning-centered classroom, not a content delivery class.

    You may not get every student to buy into the model, but you will generate more interest and have a more fulfilling group of students with a better understanding of history, why things happened the way they did, the ability to think and look for information to form opinions, and learning more by being involved with the subject matter (interacting).

    1. I’m very much in favor of using primary sources because it puts students directly in contact with the people who actually did the things the students are learning about. I think the textbooks we’re giving our teachers are poor tools because of the way they’re selected. I really hesitate to blame the teachers. My history teacher’s first name in high school was “Coach,” and he was dedicated to doing a good job. I suspect that’s true for the vast majority of teachers. I think, like I said in the post, that it’s a matter of priorities. We as a nation haven’t put the priority on history education that it deserves. I’m not sure we ever have, since many districts hire history teachers to be coaches and have done so for years. Again, I’m not blaming the teachers, because like I said, I believe they’re trying to do a good job, but they can’t fight the priorities by themselves. Gilder Lehrman has some great programs for teachers in the summer. I think we need to do what we can to help the teachers do a great job.

  4. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    Textbooks are just useful for timelines and context. Teachers should not rely on the textbook. In fact, if it were up to me I wouldn’t even have my students buy one. There are several online that work just as good. I use http://www.ushistory.org/us/ for my film class and it works fine.

    There are plenty of programs and lesson plans out there for K-12 right now. There really is no excuse for teachers not being able to teach history effectively in K-12 any more. The tools and programs are there. The problem does lie with priority. The nation seems to think STEM is what is desired by employers, but when you ask employers they disagree. They want people who can use critical thinking and can communicate. They are not getting these employees in America because STEM programs do not teach those skills.

    This idea that the humanities or liberal arts have no value is total crap. That is where the critical thinking skills are developed. Contrary to popular belief, foreign students overseas are learning from a well rounded curriculum and that is why they are getting hired over Americans in many cases. I was at a workshop in August and spoke with a professor whose son is employed by a major American company in Kansas City, MO. The son is one of two American workers and I’m referring to workers in the sense that every single one of them has a minimum of a Bachelor’s and most have Master’s.

    The division is STEM oriented and has close to 500 employees. This is just the division, not the whole company. This division is heavily involved in research as an arm of Samsung. They won’t hire Americans because Americans can’t communicate. What good is the information an engineer has in their head if they can’t communicate what they know? They have had to hire people with communications degrees so these people can communicate what they know. This is not a language barrier due to foreign languages. It is a barrier due to the lack of education.

    The funny thing is this branch tries to hire Americans, but they just fail in the interview process terribly. So here they are with all that STEM training and they can’t work at this place because they can’t communicate. That’s one thing that a history major can do in their sleep. If you cannot read or write, then you are going to have problems.

    1. There’s a lot to agree with there, Jimmy. Of course there’s a difference between texts at the college level and texts at the high school level. At the college level there’s much more flexibility to assign great books that can really enhance the learning. At the high school level the selection process is so politicized it leads to watered down texts that are useful primarily as door stops. I don’t know of a company that doesn’t need more leaders, and leaders are able to communicate effectively. Engineers take a technical writing course, usually, but in my experience it wasn’t enough for them. As a liberal arts major I did a LOT of writing in college, and as a result I can communicate my thoughts pretty well. One of my assignments in the Air Force was in flight test, where we worked with engineers and used cutting edge technology. You can teach a liberal arts major what they need to know to do well in that environment fairly quickly, but it takes time, work, and practice to learn how to communicate effectively.

  5. Soooo, I teach American history and civics to working class immigrants applying for citizenship. They were not educated in the U.S. and all of them know who Joe Biden is before the first class. The Civil War, not so much.

    1. When I was in school we had Current Events as part of social studies. Each week we had to bring in a news story and tell the class about it. If nothing else, it got us in the habit of looking at the other parts of the newspaper besides the comics page, and it got us in the habit of listening to the news in the evening. Do they still do that in our schools today?

  6. While we know that these sorts of “man on the street” interviews tend to highlight the dumb answers, it does point out a problem with the nuanced history discussions that go on in academia. While historians discuss the fine points, many of our citizenry are unsure of what century the Civil War took place in.

    Popular education tools like the film Lincoln were derided by some historians and essentially delegitimized in the minds of movie-goers when they had valuable contributions to make to the historical understanding of the 66% of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelors degree.

    History is vital content for the citizen in a democratic republic. I was at a commemoration of a hate crime killing on Sunday and on my seat was a cardboard cut-out with the words “Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it” written out by a highschooler.

  7. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    As a follow-up to my earlier comment on this, I decided to call a couple of U.S. history teachers in Carson City-Crystal where I used to work and ask them about the current state of U.S. history education in Michigan. I am pleased to report that things are, at least IMO, much improved from the Michigan social studies curriculum adopted in the mid 1990s, which focused on world studies, geography, sociology and multiculturalism. In some districts (CC-C included), U.S. history was a one-semester course that covered the period from WWII to the present. It is now taught over two years in Michigan. 8th graders cover the period from the Constitution through the Civil War and according to the CC-C middle school teacher I talked to earlier today, about 5 weeks are spent on the Civil War. She also told me that there are “quite a few” CW questions on the 8th grade state assessment test (MEAP) given in May. 9th grade U.S. history covers the period from Reconstruction to the present. The 9th grade teacher in CC-C does a brief review of the CW during the first week or so as a jumping-off point for the topic of Reconstruction but there are no CW questions on the HS (11th grade) MEAP. One advantage of this program is that it has been adopted statewide so a kid moving from Carson City-Crystal to Greenville after 8th grade will be on the same page with the students in his/her new district.

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