Why History Education needs Improvement

As a college history professor I fully agree that history education is important. However it is not important simply because events in the past have happened or because certain people held power or created works that influenced following generations. History education is important because the skills you need to do well in a college level history class are the same skills that will enable you to be a good citizen.

A good citizen understands her place in her society. Her place is not merely to exist but to strive to help herself and her community become the best possible. What this means depends upon the culture and the political system and sometimes it may mean challenging them both.

In order to help her make the best decisions, a good citizen needs to understand the choice which requires understanding any possible outcomes and the situation in which a choice is required. This means understanding how the situation developed, in short, the history of it.

This is true for every decision in life. Think about it. Why did you eat what you ate for breakfast? Taste? Based on previous foods and drinks you’ve had. Those were available in your family, which has it’s own history situated in a local, national and even world wide history. That hot chocolate or coffee you had would not be available or in the form it is unless certain things happened.

A good history class goes beyond memorization of facts and beyond preaching about the importance of events. Good teachers model the process they and other historians went through to construct those facts and in seeing those connections. They demonstrate how weight weak and strong evidence and argument and then expect their students to do the same, offering feedback and new challenges along the way.

Sadly with the current “No Child Left Behind” focus on generic standardized testing, most grade, middle, and high school teachers are pressured to teach those facts that will show up on the tests. Those standardized tests do not ask students to make arguments or use evidence, something they do routinely but unconsciously when they make choices in everyday life. Until the national focused on standardized testing is removed, I think it will remain that way.

The same result is that students get bored with memorizing and while they might remember information for a test it soon disappears. It’s like any information – use or lose easy access to it. Thus students come to college and either do not take history or have unrealistic expectations.

So if you want history education to be improved you need to talk to your school boards and your government servants whose job is to serve the best interests of the country. This means getting involved and getting knowledgeable yourself about how your school works and how decisions about what and how to teach are made.

If they won’t change, challenge yourself and your child to investigate matters on your own perhaps seeking out college level courses you can take or looking for “course readers” or “primary readers” which you can order at bookstores. Look at different interpretations of events, start watching different news casts or buying a variety of newspapers. If you find a group whose opinion is the opposite of yours, open yourself up to it and look at their argument and evidence then try to objectivity look at the opinions you agree with.

All of this comparative and analytical work is part of thinking historically and part of making good decisions. The process once practiced will soon become a normal way of looking at the world. Soon you won’t think about the blouse that political is wearing or the words he is using but instead about his reasoning and her evidence. You use that information to help you make choices then in the voting booth. That’s your first step to becoming a good citizen.

Blindly memorizing facts, blindly accepting what an authority says, never looking at different interpretations and views does not a good citizen make. But it certainly makes a useful puppet. Do you and your child want to be good citizens or puppets?