A (Vague) Sense of HISTORY September 1990

By Lydia Denworth,Jonathan Alter | September 1990 | Newsweek | Topics: Learning

Ignorance of history affects our future as a democratic nation and as individuals

Historians tend to tell the same joke when they’re describing history education in America.  It’s the one about the teacher standing in the shoolroom door waving goodbye to students for the summer and calling after them, “By the way, we won World War II.”

The problem with the joke, of course, is that it’s not funny.  The surveys on historical illiteracy are beginning to numb: nearly one third of American 17-year-olds cannot even identify which countries the United States fought against in that war.  One third have no idea what Brown v. Board of Education accomplished.  one third thought Columbus reached the New World after 1750.  Two thirds cannot correctly place the Civil War between 1850 and 1900.  Even when they get the answers right, some (many?) are just guessing.

Unlike math or science, ignorance of history cannot be directly connected to loss of international competitiveness.  But it does affect our future as a democratic nation and as individuals.  “People without a sense of history are amnesiacs,” says Diane Ravitch, professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College.  “They wake up and don’t know who they are.”

The god news is that there’s growing agreement on what’s wrong with the teaching of history and what needs to be done to fix it.  The steps are tentative and yet to be felt in most classrooms.  And the debate over “multiculturalism” — the latest buzzword in broadening history’s scope — has politicized the subject in often distracting ways.  But beneath the rhetoric lies some evidence that educators are beginning to paddle in the same direction, with California taking the lead.

In the spirit of consensus, here are a few paths for reform that sensible people should be able to agree on:

Recognize the Boredom Factor.  History itself isn’t boring; it’s just taught that way.  As in science, the natural curiosity of students is snuffed out at an early age.  The reasons aren’t hard to figure.  “Kids see it as going through dull data dumps,” says Francie Alexander, who oversees curriculum for California’s Department of Education.  The image of the teacher asking his students to read page 454, then answer the questions on page 506, is enough to induce a yawn without even being in the classroom.  The natural human fascination with good stories, which the entertainment industry understands so well, is missing from history, where that fascination originated.  Admitting this as a problem — avoiding the usual defensiveness of the educational establishment — is the first step toward doing something about it.

Rethink ‘Social Studies.’ Many educators now see the transformation of history into social studies as the root of what’s wrong.  Social studies began in the 1930s as an effort to make the subject more “relevant.” Paul Hanna, its original champion, wrote that children were failing to “face the realities of this world in which we live — they escape, they retreat to a romantic realm of yesterday.” Social studies flowered fully in the 1960s and 1970s, when such romantic stories and legends (for instance, King Arthur and the Round Table) were frequently replaced in the lower grades by studying family and neighborhood life.  In higher grades, social studies came to mean an interdisciplinary approach that threw history into an academic stew with psychology, anthropology, ethnic studies, civics and other subjects.

The results have been discouraging.  The “romantic realm” Hanna denigrated turns out to have a narrative thrust and natural appeal far more memorable than soupy sociology, which is what social studies — however noble in theory — so often becomes.  “Kids like history because it’s the story of real people,” says Elaine Reed of the Ohio-based Bradley Commission, which helps states reform their history programs.  “There’s some blood and gore in there, but also some love and caring.”

Consider Arleen Chatman, a teacher at the 75th St. School in Los Angeles, who straps on an apron and takes her students on an imaginary covered-wagon ride across the country, complete with vivid first-person accounts of the arduous trip.  The whole school (K-6) creates a time line by stringing a rope across the yard and attaching cards representing historical events.  Chatman cites the fourth grade, which is usually the year that children study their state, as a good example of the differences between history and social studies.  While the social-studies curriculum would focus that year on the (often dry) roles of various state offices, Chatman’s fourth graders did a research project on William Mulholland, the “dream builder” who brought water to Los Angeles.  A woman who had known Mulholland came to tea with the class.  “This 90-year-old woman became so real to the kids” says Chatman.  “She told them wonderful stories.” Stories — the stuff of history — are what people of all ages crave.  Properly told, they can bring any class alive.

As a practical matter in elementary school, there’s just not enough time in a day to make history and geography to play a larger role in that mix.  And from junior high on, it makes more sense to define the subject as history instead of social studies.  Otherwise schools are providing what Gilbert T. Sewall of the New York-based American Textbook Council calls “escape hatches for uninterested students to satisfy their diploma requirements.” As of 1987, 15 percent of high-school graduates took no American history in high school, and 50 percent studied no world history.  When psychology or anthropology or even driver’s education classes count as social studies it’s no wonder so many students don’t know anything about the Civil War.

Expand History’s Place.  One way to bridge the history gap is simply to teach more of it.  Three years ago, California adopted a new History-Social Science Framework which strongly recommends that every student be required to take at least three years of American history and three years of world history between grades five and 12.  (Most states currently mandate only one year of American history.) In 1988, the Bradley Commission echoed California’s plans, arguing that, properly taught, history would help develop certain “habits of the mind” — critical thinking, acceptance of uncertainty, appreciation of causation — that have been sadly lacking from many classrooms.

One of the obstacles to greater concentration on history is the National Council on Social Studies (NCSS), which often downplays history in favor of what NCSS executive director Fran Haley calls “a more integrated approach.” Over the years, social studies has fallen prey to trends — ethnic, demographic, environmental, women’s and “peace” studies — that are unobjectionable, even commendable in themselves.  But these subject areas too often crowd out basic historical literacy.  Instead of being included in the broad sweep of history, they tend to replace it.  Only this year have traditionalists organized to balance the NCSS with their own professional group, the National Council for History Education.

Put ‘Multiculturalism’ in Perspective.  Even after arriving at a consensus on the importance of history, the debate still rages over whose history should be taught.  In some ways, this is a diversion, like arguing calculus versus trigonometry when the students don’t know how to add and subtract.  But it is a passionate debate within the profession, and with minorities soon to make up one third of the public-school population, it will only grow in importance.

On one side are those who attack the traditional emphasis on American history and Western civilization as “Eurocentric.” They argue that such curricula — which stress the centrality of the transfer of European values and traditions to America — are not meaningful for many minority students; in fact, they suggest that a traditional approach can be downright harmful because it doesn’t present positive enough views of nonwhite groups.  This critique is fueled by a sense that curriculum is often too positive, downplaying, for instance, the horrors of slavery and the destruction of Indians.  American history, these critics say, is often presented as a “parade of presidents.” World history seems to be a story of Europe on top.  “That’s hard for kids attached to those nations that were subjugated,” says Irene Segade, who teaches at San Diego High School.

The most extreme version of this view was contained in “A Curriculum of Inclusion,” a highly controversial report issued last year by a New York task force assigned by Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol to review social studies.  Sobol admits that he created the task force, which he says was preliminary and not responsible for curricular reform, essentially as a political gesture to minority groups upset by his appointment.  (He is white.) He underestimated the potential for backlash.  The report is a textbook case of what happens when education is treated as akin to a pork-barrel project, with bones thrown to constituency groups.  Although the state’s history curriculum was overhauled to make it more multicultural as recently as 1987, representatives of different ethnic groups each argued that their histories should be more heavily weighted.

The problem with the argument is that the contributions of different cultures have simply not been comparable.  Like it or not, Europe has had the largest influence on this nation’s values and institutions.  “No one would say that Afro-Asian culture studies is not important.  These parts of the world are relevant to us today,” says Steve Houser, a history teacher at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, N.Y.  “But we have a problem with being [attacked as] ‘Eurocentric.’ We teach the good and the bad of European history — imperialism, world wars, the Holocaust.  It’s ridiculous to say that Europe hasn’t had an inordinate influence over the modern world.”

The “Europhobic” approach, says Diane Ravitch, “endorses the principle of collective guilt.  It encourages a sense of rage and victimization in those who are the presumed descendants of victims and a sense of resentment in those who are the presumed descendants of oppressors.  Instead of learning from history about the dangers of prejudging individuals by their color or religion, students learn that it is appropriate to think of others primarily in terms of their group identity.” California Education Superintendent Bill Honig argues simply that the essential themes of history often transcend lines of race and national origin.  He points to the Chinese students who raised the Statue of Liberty last year in Tiananmen Square.  “They’re quoting Montesquieu, Jefferson and Locke,” he says.  “In fact, they can quote [them] better than our people.”

As bitter as this debate has become, there’s a middle course between, say portraying slavery as merely a minor episode and giving Benjamin Banneker equal weight to Benjamin Franklin.  It is possible — even essential — to “step into the [minority group’s] shoes, see it from their perspective” without letting that dominate a curriculum, as Sobol says.  Primary source materials such as first-person accounts by slaves or Asian workers on the transcontinental railroad can achieve that end.  So can classroom arguments about whether the West was “won” or “stolen.” The creator of that exercise, Joseph Palumbo, a teacher at Stephens Junior High in Long Beach, Calif., also asks his students to view Columbus’s landing in America from the Indians’ point of view.  This is multiculturalism with the human face, and it’s easily achievable without harsh attacks and hand wringing.

Demand Good Textbooks.  History textbooks are too often a crutch for teachers and a club over their students.  They are almost always too long and boring.  A 1987 study by Columbia University’s American History Textbooks project found these texts “generally to be mere catalogues of factual material about the past, not sagas peopled with heroic and remarkable individuals engaged in exciting and momentous events.” The insightful texts favored in Gilbert Sewall’s report, such as “A History of The United States” (Ginn and Co., Lexington, Mass.), by Daniel Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelly, all featured heavy participation by the distinguished authors.

Amazingly, this is rare in elementary and secondary history textbooks.  Most are written — badly — by unknown and often professionally unqualified firms subcontracted by publishing houses.  (The “authors” whose names appear on the cover often merely review and amend the turgid test.) Beyond placing less faith in textbooks in general, teachers should insist on texts that have strong narrative voices instead of those that make kaleidoscopic attempts at comprehensiveness.  The whole historical establishment should worry less about battling over exactly which details are mentioned or missing from textbooks and more about making these books convey the wonder of history.

Bring History Alive.  This, after all, is the challenge.  How to make Jefferson or Roosevelt or Gandhi inhabit the minds of students?  Good teachers know it’s possible.  Use primary sources.  Use literature.  Tell a story.  Relate historical events to current events.  Insist that they write essays instead of merely answering multiple-choice questions.  Make kids take sides in debate.  Make them establish connections between different historical ideas.  Make them think.

Joe Palumbo’s eighth-grade students in Long Beach know more than when the Civil War took place.  Last spring they spent class time using that war — and others they had studied — to debate the morality and complexity of conflict.  Was it right for Northern troops to burn Southern crops and leave the population hungry?  Was it right for Confederates to hold Northerners in squalid POW camps?  When do the ends justify the means?  By the time the bell rang, the students were not yet finished arguing the issues with one another.  The conversations continued out in the hall, almost making them late for their next class.  Palumbo would not be one of those waving goodbye to his students with the words, “By the way, the North won.”