Time to Rethink How We Teach and Test U.S. History In Our Schools
Thomas Jefferson accurately declared, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Listen to talk radio, political candidates or TV “news” and Jefferson’s warning is clear. The ignorance we encounter in public debate illustrates his fear. It is time to rethink what and how we teach.
This is not a criticism of candidates like Congresswoman Bachmann who misplaced the Battle of Concord or Governor Palin who confused Paul Revere’s ride. In fact, the media’s focus on such irrelevant factoid slip-ups is part of the larger problem. For too long we have trivialized history into a multiple choice test format, into a game of Trivial Pursuit. How we teach and test U.S. History both guarantees ignorance and risks our freedom as we focus on facts at the expense of ideas.
Names, places, dates and terms are really the vocabulary of history. To speak the language of history one must of course know that vocabulary. But to truly understand one must go beyond the vocabulary to the comprehension concepts. Unfortunately, in today’s fervor to test, assess, measure and judge our schools we have succumbed to a curriculum so full of “content,” so stuffed with names, terms, dates, places, and events, that most students never have time to experience comprehension. Both state and national standards demand that we teach and test U.S. History (and most other subjects) in a way that leaves little time for classroom debate, in depth analysis or the personalization of topics into a form that is meaningful for students.
Our over-emphasis on what educators call “coverage” – the completion of a mandated pile of content - makes it impossible to teach and test U.S. History in a way that identifies real understanding. Our Trivial Pursuit format tells students that memorizing the names, places, terms and dates is all they really need. When testing focuses on filling in bubbles beside multiple choice one-word answers, students come to think that this “is” how we study the past. They come to believe that the memorization of factoids is what history is all about and in so doing miss its value completely.
Returning to Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin, every time the press focuses merely on a politician’s verbal slip-up or gaffe they reinforce this view. This is not to say that public figures shouldn’t be called to task for misstatements, but rather that the real discussion – the one that should take place in the media and in every U.S. History classroom is on the validity, the logic and the truthfulness of the views expressed by public figures.
Every period of history is unique; teachers (and the media) should focus more on the use or miss-use of historical analogies, of data and of explanations by public figures. Students should have time to investigate – in depth – the issues raised by public figures. If the Battle at Concord (in Massachusetts not New Hampshire) and the ride of Paul Revere (to warn the colonists and not the British) are important, they should be investigated in their own historical context. Students and citizens in general may then intelligently look for applicable lessons for our world today. When we teach and test U.S. History we should focus not on memorizing the details of an event, but rather on the thought processes that students bring to bear on this content.
The way we teach and test U.S. History has changed little since today’s adult citizens were in school and yet technology, students and the sheer volume of historical facts to be studied have changed - radically. Rather than adding new historical topics with each new election and focusing on the recall of names, places, dates and terms as we have in the past it is time to change how we teach and test U.S. History.
A discussion of Jefferson’s warning about ignorance and freedom is a good place to start, perhaps by asking students how they might interpret and apply his words today.