Do multiplication tables ever change? How about what makes a complete sentence? History is one of the few subjects that has new material added to it daily. Therefore, one who teaches history, as I have for over 20 years, must keep one foot in the present while bringing the past alive. With the constant addition of new material, and without an addition in length to the school year or the 12 grade approach, textbook writers, districts, and instructors themselves must prioritize what is to be taught. While this title does not ask what NEEDS to be done to improve history education, perhaps a short blurb about that should be included as well as why it needs improving.
Just the Facts, Ma’am-
Sadly, because of the lack of time and feeling the need to “cram all the information in”, teachers have begun to approach history as a “parade of facts”. Henry Ford invented the car. John D. Rockefeller controlled the oil. World War I lasted from 1914-1919. And so the parade continues down the street of boredom, into the- de -sac of who cares? Kids have no reason to hang on to these facts. No framework with which to build a monument to the people and cultures that have laid a foundation. It’s as though the facts are the drywall, and there has been no frame established on which to attach it.
For Entertainment Purposes Only-
As a result, kids only learn things that grab their attention. There is usually a stir when Rasputin and his sexual deviance is discussed. Kids can’t believe their incredibly good fortune of even the mention of a sexual and possible demonic icon in the classroom. But what does the knowledge of WHO Rasputin is, do for them? Little, unless it is the 800 dollar question on Jeopardy. Teachers sensing this interest, can fall into the trap of only choosing entertaining topics to discuss, ignoring critical content.
This “entertainment trap” is especially true of teachers who do not have the experience, or have been shoved into teaching a history class because P.E. had a drop in enrollment. When teachers have not been well mentored by veterans, nor prepared well by college professors, who themselves can take liberties with only their favorite topics, the result is a low energy, unknowing crowd of historical “gawkers” knowing that something important must have happened, but not quite sure exactly what.
The Art of Standardizing-
There is a reason that a degree in history is a bachelor of ARTS. History and humans are art personified. No standardized test can get at the value of Lincoln’s decisions or the impact of the transistor in ways that connect us all as human beings. With more focus placed on standardized testing subjects, history takes a back seat in importance with parents, students, and educators alike.
Consequences and Cures-
The consequences are already beginning to show themselves. We have a culture who can’t find Canada on a map. We have people who are easily swayed politically by popularity polls on MSN rather than being able to see holes in logic or recognize rhetoric. The end result is an ignorant citizenry- one which those in power don’t mind at all. I know in my home state, we have seen initiative after initiative that try to limit government control, shot down by government even after their passage. Where are the progressives when you need them? Most these days would think Progressive is a type of auto insurance.
The cure as I have witnessed, is to give kids a framework to hang the facts on. Showing them relationships between politics, economics, religion, society, intellectualism, and the arts. Having kids understand what the consequences are politically when a government ties itself to a certain religion, or lack thereof. Then, using historical examples, students of the human story can see patterns, predict outcomes of certain policies and actions, making them informed citizens.
All in all, history instruction must improve. If we continue to have only short term memory, neglecting valuable lessons hidden in past events and cultures, then sadly one day soon the words of Santayana will be echoing in our ears, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”