"History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.."... ...Abba Eban.
Commentary of the Day - March 20, 2003: History and the Heirs of the Republic. Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).
Last spring federal officials released the results of the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress. In U.S. history only eleven percent of high school seniors qualified as "proficient" or "advanced." Nearly sixty percent failed to score at the "basic" level.
Billed as the "nation's report card," the NAEP reports its data in excruciating detail. For example, fourth grade students who read history books on a "daily or weekly basis" tended to score higher than students who read history books on a "weekly or monthly basis." Equally shocking, students who weren't absent much also tended to do better. Finally, classes that spent more time on history "attained a higher average score" than classes that "reported spending less time."
Like most assessment tools the NAEP has come under fire for producing questionable results. There's also room for debate about the value of some of its questions. Officials were concerned, for instance, that "fewer than a third of eighth graders could completely describe the steel plow's historical role in improved farming." Speaking as a history teacher, I'm not sure that particular lapse in knowledge represents a clear and present danger to national security.
Still, of all the subjects covered by the NAEP battery, "high school students have the highest rate of failure in U.S. history." Critics blame the "abysmal" performance on everything from too many history teachers without credentials to too many history books with too many errors. Those complaints aren't without justification.
But Poor Elijah's identified two more fundamental reasons why kids don't know enough history. Teachers stopped teaching it, and students stopped learning it.
Students stopped learning it for the same reasons they stopped learning a lot of other things. It isn't always fun, and it takes effort. Instead of explaining that that's the way life is, education experts have exalted fun as the hallmark of good teaching. Too many experts still do. Unfortunately, teaching well doesn't mean that most kids will enjoy it, certainly not most of the time. "If it feels good, learn it" isn't the path to knowledge.
At the same time they were spreading the gospel of fun, experts were also mounting a crusade against facts. They claimed facts were boring and that kids needed to practice critical thinking. Inconveniently, critical thinking requires something – like facts – to think about. Without them you're left with students perfectly willing to express their opinions but blissfully unaware that those opinions are worthless and unsupported.
History is more than names, events, and dates, but when critics can condemn Massachusetts' history curriculum because it's "incredibly fact-riddled," you have to wonder if they're in the right business.
Political correctness and multiculturalism have taken their toll, too. Texts and standards increasingly spotlight relatively insignificant figures and events just to ensure we've got a chapter for every color, culture, and gender. As a result, more important events and issues often wind up on the cutting room floor.
Arranging courses in thematic units hasn't helped either. There's nothing wrong with recognizing common themes – expansion, reform, immigration -- that tie eras together. But first you need to look at the whole picture. It makes no sense to teach a unit on 1960s civil rights to students who've never studied the Bill of Rights and the Civil War. And, it makes no sense to teach the Bill of Rights to students who've never studied the Revolution.
The best way to introduce students to history is to teach it to them in the order it happened. That's because most kids have no sense of time. Without that chronological context, even the loftiest thematic unit becomes a collection of disconnected facts. Remember, we're talking about kids who can't identify Washington and the Constitution, who don't know who we fought in the Revolution, who don't connect slavery and the Civil War. For them John Kennedy and the Declaration of Independence are next door neighbors. That's assuming they've heard of John Kennedy and the Declaration of Independence.
You need to begin with the basics.
I teach a survey of United States history. I start with the Europe the colonists fled, and I try to make it up to World War II. My students read every night, but I edit their reading to eliminate fluff. Overly detailed, thick textbooks are the reason so many classes never get past Reconstruction.
I describe the agony of Valley Forge. I show kids the simple genius of the Constitution. I let them test the principles in the Bill of Rights. I tell them about the Trail of Tears and Dred Scott. I read them Lincoln's words, "charity for all and malice toward none." I try to explain how our nation metamorphosed from an international joke to the world's preeminent power in just slightly more than one hundred years.
I teach them about war so they can understand how horrible and necessary it can be. I teach them about economics and social change. I don't hide our failings and our flaws. But I let the stories show them how we shine among the nations.
I tell my students I won't live forever. I tell them to look around the room, that the nation is filled with classrooms just like theirs and students who care just as much or as little as they do. Then I ask how many of them will be ready to inherit the republic.
They are the heirs of the republic.
I'm not ashamed that I teach them lots of facts. And some dates are important. Every American needs to recognize 1776. Four score and seven means the country nearly fell apart within an old man's lifetime.
The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the chronicles of the past – these are the rules of the game. What chance do you have of winning the game, of protecting your rights and meeting your responsibilities, if you don't know the rules? Because there will always be people like me who can outtalk them. There will always be people willing to relieve them of the burden of governing themselves.
Jefferson was right. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Now is the time to prepare our children for their vigil.
Because without a solid understanding of their nation's history, they won't see the future coming.
©2003, Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches language arts at Weathersfield Middle School in Vermont. He publishes his columns locally under the name "Poor Elijah". He would be pleased to answer inquiries directed to the editor.
The IP comments: Poor Elijah's words seem to be most appropriate at this particular time in our history.
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