Wouldn’t you know it? No sooner does another school year end than harried historians, most of whom are panting for summer break like a marathoner at mile 26, learned that Sarah Palin, on a historical tour in Boston, delivered a version of Paul Revere’s ride that might have embarrassed Parson Weems. About a week later, the “Nation’s Report Card,” revealed that–surprise!–only 20% of fourth-graders, 17% of eighth-graders, and 12% of high school seniors “demonstrated proficiency,” as measured by the latest version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standardized U.S. History exam. Yes, fellow History professionals, it’s time once again to defend to the death (or at least into retirement) what we teach and how we teach it, both against creators of standardized tests and those politicians and pundits who draw sometimes wacky conclusions from them.
Take, for example, the brouhaha over Palin’s remarks about Revere’s famous “Midnight Ride.” Leonard Pitts, Jr., of the Miami Herald opened his column on that topic with the obligatory put down of Governor Palin (“She makes mistakes like Apple makes iPhones, so there is a temptation to catalogue her recent bizarre claim . . . as superfluous evidence of intellectual mediocrity”), but then veered off in a different direction. Ignorance of the American past is not the special province of Palin and other media and political figures, Pitts wrote, and therein lies the problem: “Where history is concerned, this is fast becoming a nation of ignoramuses and amnesiacs.” He added that some observers dismiss the results of the NAEP exam, on the grounds that history is no longer useful (if it ever was) in navigating one’s career path and fulfilling one’s civic duties, both of which must be done in the present and the future, not in the past. Pitts countered that view by arguing that “[O]ur history is the master narrative of who we are. . . . And we allow all that to be forgotten at our own peril. How can our children write the next chapter of a story they don’t even know?” In other words, according to Pitts, we are becoming a nation of Sarah Palins, at least insofar as our knowledge of this nation’s history is concerned.
Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg took on the former Alaska Governor’s latest foray into historical misinformation in a Salon piece, “Sarah Palin’s Vacation from History.” Interestingly enough, the treatment of Palin offered by these two professional historians is more of a supercilious hatchet job than the approach adopted by journalist Pitts. To Burstein and Isenberg, the college history students they see in their classrooms “are generally careful not to embarrass themselves,” and they “possess at least a modicum of self-respect.” Governor Palin, on the other hand, clearly does not read much or exhibit genuine curiosity about the past, and “she is not embarrassed by her ignorance.” Near the end of the article, the professors do broaden their assessment slightly, asserting that “Palin’s constant mangling of our history is indicative of nothing so much as the state of America’s celebrity culture.” The Governor lacks “a basic respect for knowledge,” and, by extension, so do those who breathlessly follow–and accept as gospel–her every word.
The “History News Network ” web site (HNN) took a more “academic” approach to the latest allegation that American kids “don’t know much ’bout History,” publishing a “roundtable” where five commentators offered their views on the NAEP assessment. To one degree or another, all the contributors cited the deleterious effects on the teaching of history of No Child Left Behind as a factor in the test results. One historian asserted that there clearly is a need to restore history “to a central role in the K-12 curriculum,” with the federal government taking the lead in this reform effort. (And, no, she did not seem to see the irony in her demand, given that it was the federal government that gave us NCLB.) Two others at the HNN roundtable faulted the NAEP test itself, with one asking, “Can Educators Even Answer These Lame Questions?” and the other offering a “modest suggestion: anyone who voices criticism of our students or our teachers based on this test ought to take the test themselves.” Still another contributor, a historian much concerned about the gullibility–even ignorance–of many American voters, suggested that discussions of reforming the teaching of American history ought to center on the ends to be achieved rather the means of doing so. This writer proposed several goals for teaching history: “History should prepare students to understand 1) the complexity of events, 2) why they react to events the way they do given our history, and 3) key turning points in history, both at home and abroad.” The final participant in the HNN roundtable, a history teacher at a private school in New York, took the opposite tack, contending that ” the most compelling questions in terms of improving historical literacy turn less on what we want students to know . . . than how we can help them know it.” Based upon his own experience in the classroom, this critic asserted that, “when it comes to raising student proficiency, top-down standards are a poor substitute for ground-level judgment.”
I come at this issue from a different angle. I admit that every student should acquire a “body of knowledge” about American–and other–history. I will also concede that at least some of this “knowledge”–if retained (a major qualification), and built upon by reading and reflection–should enable high school and college graduates to exercise their civic responsibilities in a more intelligent fashion than sometimes seems to be the case. But what I wonder is, how do we convince our students that the study of the past is not just worth doing in a general sense–i.e., some of this stuff will be on the test–but also that history can be useful, interesting, even fun? If we ignore this question , we will continue to be regarded by our students as overanxious authority figures stridently urging them to eat their vegetables, whether they want to or not (and those of us who are parents know how well that works!). Based upon nearly four decades of teaching history at the secondary level, let me suggest that the “you need to study history so that you can earn impressive scores on standardized tests and oh, by the way, become historically literate as well” approach to the study of the past is not going to sway very many adolescents; just the opposite, in fact. No, I believe we should strive to inculcate in our charges a genuine love of history, a strong belief that history is worth knowing for its own sake, regardless of any other benefits such knowledge might bring. But, how do we go about doing that–or, better yet, can we “teach” students to love history? . . .
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: