The Problem with Teaching History

I continue to be and will always be a great fan of James Loewen; I think he gets it too. I am often troubled by the history buff notion. Too many people who see the teaching, reading, writing, and learning of history as static; it should not change since there is only one voice. But for those of us who get it, we know that the dynamics of this great field of study is indeed organic. I am not a history buff; I live it through my constant and relentless approach to reading, writing, and teaching about it. In the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen notes:

Loewen’s critique, which centers on the lack of student engagement with historical controversy, the absence of analysis and interpretation, the “heroification” of our nation’s historical figures, and the subordination of cause and effect to the memorization of disconnected factoids, is a charge that reaches far down into the wellspring of current educational practice in the United States. And, for those of us who practice our craft in social studies classrooms across the nation, it stings.In fact, the education establishment has had a long and profound romance with the ubiquitous textbook. Textbooks have provided an inexpensive, standardized and structured foundation for schooling since the Reformation.

When students are questioned about their school experiences, they invariably cite history and social studies as among their least favorite classes. Social studies is generally perceived to be undemanding, uninteresting, and irrelevant. When they are asked to describe what it is that might make the discipline more interesting students tend to suggest that a greater variety in instructional methods (including simulations, role playing, group projects, etc.) less repetition, and greater relevance to student experience would improve their learning environment. Investigations by Loewen and others reveal that textbooks which burden students on the average, with huge (four and a half pounds), long-winded (888 pages on average) narrations, typically promoting 444 main ideas and 624 key terms and “countless other factoids”, provide the keystone that supports a very shaky structure. In their report on the first national assessment of history and literature in 1987 Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, Jr., found that 59.6% of high school juniors used a textbook daily and that 71.4% of these students took a history test at least once a week.  Yet these high school juniors could respond correctly to only  54.5% of the questions on the national assessment. In summarizing their findings, Ravitch and Finn, Jr. write that, “In the eyes of the students, the typical history classroom is one in which they listen to the teacher explain the day’s lesson, use the textbook, and take tests…They seldom work with other students, use original documents, write term papers, or discuss the significance of what they are studying (Ravitch and Finn, Jr., 1987).” When the NAEP’s comprehensive American history test results were made public in 1990, it was clear that America’s history students were still achieving at a level of C- in history (Nash, et al, 1997). Small wonder high school students find little relevance in their study of history and continually rank social studies at or near the bottom of their list when it comes to school subjects (Schug, et al, 1984).


3 thoughts on “The Problem with Teaching History

  1. History forces us to think too much about what we have done wrong. Oftentimes that is not what people want to read about or see on TV. They prefer Brave Heart.

  2. Teaching history is particularly difficult, I do agree. The fact remains that people do not find it practical to their existence. Often times people consider math or the natural sciences to be more commonplace than a recollection of facts and events that occurred in our past, and in this modern era where the NOW is more imminent and noteworthy than the THEN the students lack the interest in pursuing such a subjective and detailed account. Simple things like understanding temperatures and their affect on the body or the ability to multiply the number of chairs in a concert hall so that you can post the number of available seating for a show in less than a minute are all considered highly practical for the NOW. What people fail to understand is that the NOW is a product of the THEN, and the THEN is better for those curious enough to wonder things like, “Where does Pasteurization come from?” or “How do we know the sun is in the center?”

    For people like me, looking into the history is absolutely fascinating, but for others its a droll and unfortunately the least favorite class generally. I attempted an unofficial study in which I presented my research findings (of which Carson has yet to put on his website like he claimed in part six of his Introducing Great Students) and noticed people like flashy presentations versus the droll of a history classroom. So, in noticing this I suppose that students disinterested in History should be approached in a flashy manner, something that does not put them to sleep but rather engages them. I do not know if Carson remembers when I did a presentation on Bleeding Kansas during my junior year US History course and engaged people by showing pictures and moving items to dictate movements of both Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers during the period. In my opinion, albeit this may seem unprofessional and over simplistic, but the best way to engage a student who is not particularly prone to history is through engaging the instinctual visuals. Flashy at best I realize this, but it works.

  3. History classes can be – far too often – places of “sit and get” for copious amounts of trivial content. And the literacy challenges of so many students make history textbooks intimidating collections of info they simply can’t digest on their own. If they are not engaged, or more importantly if they are not taught the skills to engage with the content, then failure rates and lack of interest (except among the highest achievers) will continue to plague the history classroom.

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