Thursday, July 28, 2005

David Broder laments the poor state of history-teaching in our country. Obviously, this is a situation close to my heart. I'm with David McCullough,
McCullough said that the problem starts with the training that teachers receive. "Too many have degrees in education," he said, "and don't really know the subject they are teaching."

"It is impossible to love a subject you don't know," he said, "and without a passion for history, the teaching of history becomes a matter of rote learning and drudgery."
Another source of the problem started 30 or 40 years ago when we stopped teaching "history" and started teaching "social studies." Feh! It is as if teachers and administrators had gotten together and plotted how to suck all the joy out of learning history. Gone were the many stories from history that can excite a child's imagination and inspire that child to want to learn more about an event in history. Instead, the classes became endless exercises in coloring in maps and labeling tables of exports from various countries. The study of Russia involves a lesson coloring in a picture of St. Basil's Cathedral and eating pirozhki. The kids can rattle off names like Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great but they don't know anything about these people. I haven't taught Russian history, but I'd start a lesson showing Ilya Repin's magnificent painting of Ivan the Terrible right after he'd killed his own son. Show the kids that painting of a father who has just realized what he's done and they'll be clamoring to know more about him and why he was called "terrible." Sure, they can look at a map but who cares if they can identify the outline of every country in Europe if they don't know why that geography is important - how Poland's history has been affected because they are a flat country stuck between Germany and Russia or how England's destiny was different because it was an island that hasn't been invaded successfully since 1066.

When I taught in middle school, I usesd to be heartsick to see how kids were so bored in their social studies classes. They'd learn little tidbits about each culture but have not been taught any context as to how that culture has impacted and was impacted by history. And the curriculum forces teachers to jet from one country to another so that they can don't shortchange any culture. "If it's Tuesday it must be Argentinian gauchos and let's move quickly, children, since tomorrow we have to label the parts of a Viking ship and by Thursday, we need to sing the little African chant and practice the dance and we'll wind up the week drawing the Great Wall on the map of China. And we're so grateful to Nicholas' mother who brought in the Belgian pastries yesterday." No wonder these kids never want to read a book about any of these places.

At least teachers of American history get to spend an entire year on our country's history. But the textbooks are just like McCullough said,
Late last month, the prolific historian had said in a Senate hearing that his examination of school history textbooks had shown a disquieting trend. Over the years, he said, he has noticed that the typeface in those books is growing larger, the illustrations are more lavish and the content is shrinking. The authors and the teachers using these textbooks "seem to assume that students don't like to read," he said, "and then Harry Potter comes along and blows it all away."
I'll add in that political correctness has transformed most textbooks into a catalogue of sins of rich white men against everyone else. Why would any kid want to go read about any more of this history? And there's a full curriculum there so teachers are still rushed. Unless, you're willing to throw out some of the tedious curriculum, teachers don't have time to spend on the subjects that will excite kids. I found that middle school kids, both boys and girls, loved learning stories from our nation's military history. My recommendation to any middle school American history teacher is - don't speed through that military history. Start with the French and Indian War and how George Washington as a young man sparked a world war. Tell them about General Wolfe's troops scaling the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham and both Generals Wolfe and Montcalm dying in this climatic battle that changed the history of the continent. Kids will be on the edge of their chairs and then you've gotten them and they're ready to learn the elements of the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Those kids will be coming eagerly to class every day wondering what stories they're going to hear and without their even realizing it, they'll learn the rest of the history and enjoy it. History classes should be the most interesting ones in the school, but too many times those classes are the dullest. McCullough is right - get teachers who loved history so much that they majored in it college. Hire people who in their spare time read books about history for fun. (And you can't do better than reading, McCullough's own history of the Revolution, 1776.) If I were interviewing for a history teacher for middle school, I'd want to know what history book the candidates most recently read and what stories they learned from that book that would be most likely to share with their classes to excite kids' interest in the subject. If I can't get a good answer for that question, bye-bye.