I write today not to excoriate teachers, who have one of the most under-appreciated careers in American society. I know I’d never be able to teach children, as I simply don’t have the patience. Today, history, and how history is taught in our schools, is my focus. I’m inspired by Alia Wong’s article today in The Atlantic, that touches on the perceived biases in the textbooks, and thus the teaching.
I’m a parent of two young kids, one in fourth grade, the youngest in first. Fourth grade seems to be where we start teaching history here in Ohio, at least, as my daughter is just now beginning lessons on the founding of our state. For those who don’t know me, I’m not a scholar, nor did I formally study history while in college — as I was taught that there was no future in an academic career for me.
I have no quarrel with waiting to teach until the kids reach an appropriate age. Any younger, and the kids who read poorly will be left behind. I’d argue that the manner in which our kids are taught about history is flawed.
The Atlantic piece focuses on the Eurocentric biases in the curriculum that diminish the historic struggles minorities faced, and also the outsized impact of Texas’ public schools has on what curricula is available across the nation. The author is certainly correct that referring to the slave trade as merely “immigration” is a travesty.
My recollection of history classes is quite similar to what I see in my kids’: recitation of dates and facts, rather than the people and circumstances behind that trivia. Every year, we would start with “In the year 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” If we were lucky, we would get to the Civil War around Memorial Day. Never did we study the twentieth century wars in any detail. Maybe a couple of days on WW2, but the only thing I ever studied in class about the first War was that the Archduke was assassinated. That’s it.
This highlights my biggest concern about history education: the over-reliance on tertiary sources such as textbooks. Might I humbly suggest a two-pronged approach to improving historical education?
First: eliminate the textbooks. Generate open-ended lesson plans on the key events and people that need to be covered, and encourage self-directed study in each of those subjects. Have each student — or even a small group — find their own research materials, easily accessible via Google, and report back to the class. Verbal, written, PowerPoint — it doesn’t matter. Allow the kid to direct their own historical journey.
Second: split up the classes. In many other subjects, such as mathematics and English, those students who a bit more advanced are often moved to an appropriately-advanced class, whereas those who struggle won’t be asked to do advanced calculus or interpret Chaucer. At least in my experience, history class is history class, and all even when the teacher is passionate about the subject matter, some students are not ready for that sort of engagement. Split them up, and the advanced class can explore the economic impact of emancipation, while the entry-level class can teach to the test.
I know this is quite simplistic, and I can’t imagine the challenges involved in such a broad curriculum change. Also, I’m a white male, precisely the biased person who likely shouldn’t be making these decisions simply because we have been making them for decades already. I’d love to hear arguments about this, and perhaps we can spur some improvement.