Category Archives: Teaching History

America’s youth are still ignorant when it comes to history

The latest bulletin from the Bureau of “We Get It, We Get It”:

A recent study called “The Nation’s Report Card” said less than one quarter of all students is proficient or shows a solid academic performance in American history.

Shockingly, while most quizzed could identify a photo of Abraham Lincoln, hardly any could say why he was an important president.

If there’s anywhere students would be able to answer a question about Lincoln, many would think it would be at the Lincoln memorial, in Washington DC.

But the study and a field trip made it clear that kids aren’t learning history.

Interesting that kids could ID a picture of Lincoln but couldn’t say anything significant about him.  Lincoln’s face is one of the most visually distinctive in American annals, so on a perverse and twisted level, it sort of makes sense.  For kids weaned on reality TV, historical figures are not unlike modern pseudo-celebrities, famous for being famous.  “Hey, isn’t he that guy from the $5 bill?”

That furious clickety-clacking you hear is the sound of keyboard commandos announcing the discovery of yet more evidence that history teachers are incompetent and our school systems irreparably broken.  That’s because they haven’t read the rest of the story, or they have read it and they don’t care.

Why that’s the case, and how to fix it, is up for debate.

Possibilities include apathetic students, how history is tested, and the No Child Left Behind Act squeezing history out of the classroom in favor of math and reading.

As crazy as it sounds, lousy testing standards and policies that minimize history requirements may actually contribute to the problem of historical ignorance. History teachers have to play the hand they’re dealt, and that hand isn’t always pretty.

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For globe-trotting Americanists

It’s time for those of us who make a living by teaching to get back to the business of turning America’s youth into godless Marxists who despise their country.  A lot of us who are specialists in American history will find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, teaching the world history survey courses that have become mandatory at many colleges and universities.

I’ll be teaching two sections of pre-1500 world history this semester, trying to cover everything from the dawn of mankind through the medieval era before Christmas break.  Teaching these surveys is fun and challenging at the same time.  As I’ve said before, history is a big tent, and the difference between studying classical Athens and studying the Revolutionary War is as profound as the difference between geology and zoology.

I was lucky enough to be able to take a pretty diverse array of world history courses as an undergraduate, but in grad school I focused on the early history of the U.S.  Now that my bank account’s replenishment depends heavily on teaching world history, I’ve spent a lot of time going back to subjects I’d neglected for a long time. That has meant reading a lot of general works on ancient and medieval stuff.

Since there are probably quite a few other Americanists out there who’ll find themselves in the same boat, I thought I might change gears here and recommend a few of the resources which have been particularly helpful to me in preparing these courses.  Let me stress that these are only general works; I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to build comprehensive bibliographies of this kind.  I’m approaching this post not as a seasoned trail guide, but as an often-bewildered and very green hiker who just happens to have found some decent maps to share.  I make no claims that any of these books are the best of their kind, only that I’ve found them handy as I’ve grappled with the Herculean task of walking a classroom full of students through the first few millennia of the human past.

The New Penguin History of the World (5th ed.) by J.M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad.  This acclaimed work has gone through several different updates, and the latest revisions actually came after the death of its original and primary author.  It’s much stronger on modern history than it is on earlier periods, and much stronger on the history of the West than it is on other civilizations.  As a one-volume overview, it’s necessarily brief on pretty much everything, but it’s a handy volume to have on hand when you find yourself putting together an outline on some subject that’s not that familiar to you.

Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean by Charles Freeman.  Anybody who’s teaching the first part of the world history survey should get this book.  It’s clear and comprehensive, covering the political, social, and cultural aspects of three of the major civilizations that shaped the ancient world.  I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Ancient Iraq (3rd ed.) by Georges Roux.  This is a very popular introduction to early Mesopotamia, written by a former petroleum company employee who acquired a love of the ancient Near East.  It’s quite readable, and covers most of the major developments in the Fertile Crescent from the beginning of civilization to the later first millennium B.C.

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. by Ian Shaw.  This book, which covers Egyptian history from the earliest archaeological traces through the Roman era, is the result of a collaboration by a group of Egyptologists, each of whom contributed a chapter.  Like many such books, the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven, and the text as a whole is pretty dry and sterile.  If you’re unfamiliar with the basic outlines of Egyptian history, I’d recommend you read the Egyptian chapters in Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome before tackling this volume, since the authors seem to assume that the reader already has some familiarity with the subject.

Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts.  There are, of course, several good general works on ancient Greece in English.  One of my professors assigned an earlier edition of this text for a college course I took on the ancient Mediterranean, and I recommend it highly.  It’s very inclusive in its coverage, but it’s also clear and well-organized.  The same publisher came out with a similar textbook on Rome that I haven’t read yet.

The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor.  This has become the go-to introduction to medieval Europe for the interested layman.  Cantor is best at guiding the reader through the major intellectual and religious developments, but the whole book is worth the investment of time, and it includes a great list of recommended readings.

A History of Medieval Islam by J.J. Saunders.  This book is a little old, and it doesn’t have the high profile of more recent works on the Islamic world by such eminent scholars as Bernard Lewis.  But I like it for its conciseness and clarity; it offers a very helpful refresher in an easily digestible package.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin.  The forgotten half of Christendom that maintained the legacy of the Romans after the empire in the West fell tends to get short shrift in historical memory.  This is a fine guide to a surprisingly vibrant society.

I’m still in the market for good overviews of the major eastern civilizations, so if anybody out there would care to recommend some general works on China or India, feel free to do so.

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Your kids are lousy at history

The latest study of ignorance among American schoolchildren concludes that, of all the things your kids suck at, they suck at history most of all:

American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test released on Tuesday, with most fourth graders unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure and few high school seniors able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War.

And why are kids so lousy at history?  Maybe the geniuses who determine what teachers can and can’t teach and have bled the history curriculum white have something to do with it:

History advocates contend that students’ poor showing on the tests underlines neglect shown to the subject by federal and state policy makers, especially since the 2002 No Child Left Behind act began requiring schools to raise scores in math and reading but in no other subject. The federal accountability law, the advocates say, has given schools and teachers an incentive to spend less time on history and other subjects.

“History is very much being shortchanged,” said Linda K. Salvucci, a history professor in San Antonio who is chairwoman-elect of the National Council for History Education.

Many teacher-education programs, Ms. Salvucci said, also contribute to the problem by encouraging aspiring teachers to seek certification in social studies, rather than in history. “They think they’ll be more versatile, that they can teach civics, government, whatever,” she said. “But they’re not prepared to teach history.”

Yet it’s probably going to be the teachers themselves, rather than the policymakers and administrators who actually control the curriculum, who will get dragged through the mud for this.  The armchair pundits who lambast teachers for not teaching this or that subject or concept don’t understand that teachers are beholden to guidelines handed down from above—you will cover such-and-such a theme with these attendant sub-themes, your students will be tested on such-and-such a content area, etc.

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License to dabble

Summer vacation is officially underway, which means it’s already time to start getting ready for next semester.  I’m teaching the first half of the introduction to world history again in the fall, so I’ll be spending part of the next few months brushing up.  Teaching a course for the third or fourth time is sort of like doing another draft of a piece of writing; you can go back over the material and tinker with the parts that need work.

These survey courses can be difficult, because you’re inevitably going to be stepping outside your immediate area of expertise.  The difference between doing, say, nineteenth-century American history and ancient Mesopotamian history is quite profound—like the difference between ornithology and bacteriology.  Since introductory history surveys cover the whole span of the human past, those of us who teach them have to exercise academic muscles that we wouldn’t normally use otherwise.

It can be challenging, but it’s also a neat opportunity.  You essentially get permission to become a temporary archeologist, Egyptologist, or medievalist and hold forth on topics you’d never normally discuss.  I’ll never be able to write a scholarly book on Alexander the Great or excavate a Roman villa, but I’ve got a license to dabble in this stuff anyway.  It’s sort of like professional escapism, and it’s one of the great pleasures that teaching affords.

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You know what your problem is?

It’s that your kids aren’t learning squat about American history.  And the reason they aren’t is because their teachers are boring, incompetent ideologues who hate this country and all it stands for.

Luckily for you, Mike Huckabee is here to help.  He and the folks at his new Save Our History initiative have it all figured out:

When our company’s co-founders, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Brad Saft, first got together, they had a mutual goal: to make learning history fun for kids.  As they discussed the challenges of getting kids interested in history, they discovered the problem is not the stories themselves (in fact, the stories are incredibly fascinating!)  Instead, the founders determined that the problem exists in how kids learn history.

It’s widely accepted that kids learn best through experience.  But, unfortunately, the only way kids are experiencing history today is by having it force-fed to them through dry text books, monotonous lectures and boring lessons.

See?  They’re not only thinking about history, but thinking about how kids learn.  If only professional educators had thought to do this, then we wouldn’t be in this fix.

On top of that, our children’s classes and learning materials are often filled with misrepresentations, including historical inaccuracies, personal biases and political correctness.

And if you didn’t know this already, then you clearly haven’t been spending enough time on the Internet.

With this knowledge, we set out to create the most experiential history product ever – one that would make it easy and fun for kids to understand American history, while remaining true to the facts and free from distorted messages that dilute the significance of our nation’s most important stories.

I know you’re probably sitting on the edge of your seat, grasping your computer’s keyboard with white knuckled-intensity as you wait for me to reveal what the “most experiential history product ever” entails.  Well, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.  They’re going to send your kids cartoons to watch.

Educational cartoons designed specifically for kids!  Is that not revolutionary? What could be more experiential than sitting on your keister while watching a video?  I mean, if there’s one thing kids don’t get an opportunity to do enough these days, it’s sit around watching cartoons.

I was so awestruck at this revolutionary notion of taking the time to examine how kids learned and then applying the results that I decided to share it immediately. My mom actually trains teachers in a university’s education department, so I grabbed the phone and gave her a call.

“Mom,” I said, “you’d better brace yourself, because I’m about to blow your mind right the @#$% up.”

She told me to watch my language and explained that education programs actually require prospective teachers to take courses in pedagogy, learning styles, child development, and so on.  Then she asked me if I had any idea what time it was, and hung up.

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From the dark recesses of cyberspace to your child’s brain

Here’s a reassuring item.

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.…

The book’s publisher, Five Ponds Press, based in Weston, Conn., sent a Post reporter three of the links Masoff found on the Internet. Each referred to work by Sons of the Confederate Veterans or others who contend that the fight over slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.

Where would black Confederates be without Google?

Masoff is also the author of Oh Yikes!: History’s Grossest Moments. I wonder if this one made her list.

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I’m winning friends and influencing people

One of the interesting things about online communication is the ease with which you can unwittingly offend people.

I ran across this post over at Civil War Memory in which Kevin Levin cited an item from fellow blogger Chris Wehner about radicalism in America’s classrooms.  Kevin argued that when we run across this type of information, it’s important not to assume that this or that organization or incident is characteristic of what goes on in the classroom.  I agreed, and said so in a comment:

Good points, Kevin. One of the things I’ve noticed about blogs that consistently critique the educational system is a tendency to over-generalize from anecdotal evidence. They point to news stories about teachers who engage in questionable behavior or cite statements without any effort to determine whether that sort of thing is representative. They need to realize that in many cases teachers themselves aren’t in a position to dictate educational policy; they do the best they can within the framework they’re given.

In other words, just because you run across some incident about a liberal teacher or a conference organized by some radical group marketed to teachers, it doesn’t mean that it’s representative of the majority of American educators.  Don’t take an anecdote or incident and generalize it to apply to teachers in general.

Apparently Chris took this comment to mean that by “over-generalizing” I was referring to his characterization of the group, rather than with a tendency in the blogosphere to generalize about teachers.  So for the record, let me state here and now that I’m not in favor of a radicalized classroom, and that I’m not challenging his description of the group’s aims.

Then I stopped by Old Virginia Blog and found that Richard Williams is also upset with my use of the terms “anecdotal” and “over-generalization,” and seems to be under the impression that my comment referred specifically to him.  He argues that radicalized education is, in fact, a pervasive problem.  He also provides a few additional examples to prove his point, although I think generalizing from four anecdotes isn’t much more persuasive than generalizing from one.

Since what I assumed to be a rather casual remark has upset some folks, let me take an opportunity to explain what I meant.  “Anecdotal evidence” can have different meanings.  It can mean evidence that is of dubious veracity, such as hearsay.  Or it can mean evidence in the form of a related incident that, while true, is not of sufficient weight to prove a larger conclusion.  I used the term “anecdotal” in this second sense, which as far as I know is the most common one.

I never said that I don’t have a problem with politicization of the classroom.  I do have a problem with it.  Furthermore, I never said, to quote Richard, that “there is no real evidence this is occurring in our schools.”  One can certainly find instances in which the classroom has become politicized. 

What I said is that we shouldn’t assume that these incidents accurately convey the beliefs or teaching approaches of most American teachers.  It would be like finding some accounts of Revolutionary War soldiers who broke into houses while foraging and murdered the occupants and then arguing that the Continental Army was plagued with murderers in the ranks.  The evidence is too narrow to support such a broad conclusion.

You can no more extrapolate an accurate picture of American teaching from this sort of thing than you can understand American Christianity by looking at the nuts from Westboro Baptist or a bunch of abortion clinic bombers.  Most teachers just aren’t leftist kooks, and they don’t necessarily share the opinions of every organization that claims to speak for them, even when it’s the nation’s largest teachers’ union.  I’ve explained why I believe all this to be the case in an earlier post, to which I humbly re-direct everyone’s attention.

So I don’t deny that attempts to politicize the classroom exist, or that Chris has accurately described one.  I just don’t think it’s representative of what most teachers are doing.  What I’m suggesting is that we don’t decry the state of the American classroom every time we run across some story about a left-wing organization acting up.  That’s not so bad, is it?

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