Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Don't Know Much About History

Teaching US history to 14-year-olds could be frustrating. In Maine, as in most states, students took US History in 5th, 8th, and 11th grades. That latter was required for a high school diploma and I believe it still is, but none of it guarantees that those who graduate high school have even a cursory understanding of American history — or any other history for that matter. My frustration in 8th grade was the discrepancy in basic knowledge of history or geography with which students came to me. Most didn’t know a country from a continent. They could not point to Maine on a world map, nor did they have even a cursory understanding of what the United States even was.
The scope of my curriculum included US History from Indians to the present, weaving in geography, economics, civics, the US Constitution, and current events. I was prepared to deliver it, but after the first year I realized that most students had no framework of space (geography) and time (history) into which this material could be assimilated. Without such a structure, my students would not retain much. Some 5th grade teachers taught US History, but most did little more than cut out turkeys and Pilgrim hats at Thanksgiving. I had to fill huge gaps before delivering my course because without a mental framework of time and place, what I had to teach would go in one ear and out the other.
Because of an enrollment bulge one year, I had to give up two sections of history to other teachers and pick up a couple of writing classes instead. Though I gave one teacher the scope and sequence of my 20th century US history curriculum (the scope had narrowed by then), she taught nothing but slavery all year. That’s it. Students emerged from her classes knowing nothing else of US History but that black slavery was practiced here. I was appalled, but there was little I could do except bring it to the attention of administrators. I’ve since learned this was not usual. According to Assistant Professor Duke Pesta at the University of Wisconsin, it’s much more widespread than I ever realized. Pasta offers one telling anecdote:

I started giving quizzes to my juniors and seniors. I gave them a ten-question American history test... just to see where they are. The vast majority of my students - I'm talking nine out of ten, in every single class, for seven consecutive years — they have no idea that slavery existed anywhere in the world before the United States. Moses, Pharaoh, they know none of it. They're 100% convinced that slavery is a uniquely American invention... How do you give an adequate view of history and culture to kids when that's what they think of their own country - that America invented slavery? That's all they know.

Most Americans have no idea that Arab Muslims enslaved more than a million white, Christian Europeans between 1500 and 1700, and as many as 2.5 million more whites from the Black Sea region. Touring the Greek Gulf of Corinth in 2014, I asked our guide why all the villages were located up on steep hillsides instead of on the coastal plain, she said it was to escape Muslim slavers. Arab Muslims practiced black slavery long before and long after Europeans or Americans did and still enslave black Christians in Sudan.
Simon Deng - black Christian slave I met in 2010.

When my curriculum included US History from Indians to the present, I had students reenact pre-Civil War congressional slavery debates in class. Southern congressmen like John C. Calhoun were correct when arguing that slavery was approved in both the Old and New Testaments as well as in virtually every other culture throughout history. College students today, however, think slavery a uniquely American institution.
Consider what their misconception — that Americans invented slavery — does to their understanding of their own country. Consider that leftist professor control academia — and make sure students hear a continuous drumbeat about what an evil country this is — founded by evil, capitalist, white, racist men. It’s no wonder so many flock to Bernie Sanders rallies and support dubious organizations like Black Lives Matter. No wonder they’re so willing to believe that racist cops shot Michael Brown in the back while he had his hands up — which never happened. And, it’s getting worse. According to a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA):

The overwhelming majority of America’s most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government. Disregard for the importance of United States history in the undergraduate history major is matched by the overall disappearance of United States history requirements from general education…

In the Ivy League, it’s not much better. mindingthecampus.org reports:

When ACTA commissioned a Roper survey of seniors at the "Top 50" colleges and universities, those holding the most prestigious positions in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, it found that only 29% could identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the definition of "Reconstruction.”

Don’t count on an informed electorate going into November.


Ted R said...

Excellent column, Tom

Anonymous said...

George Carlin said it best. Do not blame politicians for how they act, because all politicians were cut from the same cloth as all of us. They were born into American families, raised in our American culture and educated by our American schools.

Robert Cobb said...

How many times we had conversations on this point!? I too did history as an inclusive course, Indians to end of Civil War in regular sophomore classes; Reconstruction to modern in Juniors. This allowed for depth and critical thinking and expression practice. I fought changes for years. Having retired, the first action of the administration was to dismantle the curriculum, and replace it with a course that emphasized "colonialism" and "globalism." Neither has any academic rigor and neither has any depth in history. They are political agendas. SO, THE PROBLEM IS GOING TO GET WORSE!

Tom McLaughlin said...

Anonymous Tom said...
What constitutes history to you? Is it a selective timetable of events? Is it an all inclusive reading, including the nuances, of behaviors? Does it try to ascertain things like motivations and intentions? Which facts and viewpoints lead to an accurate reading of history? What value is put on different views of the acts of history? Do biased readings of historical actions have value to the accuracy of true history? Is history malleable and subservient to the truth by those who write it regardless of loss of reliability? Does written history serve a purpose to those who would use it as a teaching tool? An agenda driven tool? As I'm sure you know, history is not, and never has been, a simple chronicle of events, nor just a he said/she said 'story'. Often, history is a tale of our present as much as of our past, depending on our readings.
8/10/16, 3:31 PM

This comment was posted on a duplicate version of this post and I'm consolidating the two.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...
It's all you mentioned and more. It's also the subjective interpretation of various accounts both teacher and students take in. We're all inclined to remember accounts that reinforce our own biases and blindnesses.

I'm glad you refer to "true history." You acknowledge that there is such a thing -- an objective history -- but we humans can only approach it, never write it or tell of it, because of our humanity.

When last I taught it, I was able to use two accounts of US History -- the leftist "People's History of the United States" and the conservative "Patriot's History of the United States." Students read accounts of the same period, same event(s) from each, then compared and contrasted.

It was something I always wanted to do, but wasn't allowed to by administration while I taught in public school. When home school parents recruited me to teach eleven high-school-aged students, however, I proposed the idea and they liked it. It was a lot of fun for all of us. Discussions continued from my class to dinner tables at home.

When I taught in public school, I used the liberal text as a foil and offered contrasting conservative perspectives. That worked too. We had some very interesting discussions that I wrote up in about 200 columns published over the years. Readers and editors both loved them.
8/11/16, 8:29 AM

This comment was also posted on a duplicate version of this post and I'm consolidating the two.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Lifted the following three comments from the other version as well:

Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...
This comment from another former teacher came via email. I reproduce it with Mr. Klenck's permission:

As a former teacher of 36 years, I appreciate your articles particular the series on “Don’t Know Much about History.” People need to take a close examination of the Muslim history such as reported by Colonel Allen West. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkGQmCZjJ0k

Also, I loved your interview with Hillary Clinton; she is a perpetual liar!
8/11/16, 8:32 AM
Blogger Peter said...
If the main point of your column is that we need to do a much better job, both in our schools and at home, of getting young people interested in and knowledgable about history and geography, then I am in total agreement. The column seems to go off on a weird tangent though, with the notion that not knowing who "invented" slavery somehow warps ones entire perception on the USA. How's that? Under the five-year old's logic of "...but he did it first!"??

Who cares who started it...do students also feel unfairly biased against murderers because, hey, others did the same thing? Stop with the defensive excuses. Wrong is wrong. Evil is evil and should always be condemned. No need to gloss over our mistakes.

I am curious as to how you admit to the bible approving this evil when at the same time seeming to think the book is the ultimate in Holy Righteousness. But that is a tangent in itself.

On one hand your paranoia and fear run rampant, as you throw out groundless accusations (our professors are brainwashing students with lies!) and on the other hand you think our country has completely recovered from its ugly past. That there is no more racism - Michael Brown, Michael Brown - that proves it! Yet totally ignore all that disputes that, such as the new investigative reports coming out of Baltimore about rampant racism in the police system. Nope, we are all good. Hold hands and sing kumbaya. Racism is an old relic of the past.

Indeed, refusing to open your mind to certain realities and knowledge is a terrible thing.

And oh, it would be wonderful if we did have a well informed electorate....just imagine the great directions this would lead our country.
8/11/16, 10:31 PM
Blogger Peter said...
What I meant to say above about the student bias is that do you think students would be also unfairly biased AGANST murderers if they thought that nobody had murdered prior...in other words, would they take it easier on the murderer knowing that they were not the ones that "invented" murder?
8/12/16, 10:39 AM

Tom McLaughlin said...

Got this one today via email and I'm posting it here with the author's permission:

Hello Tom, great article!

As a community college math instructor, retired now, I had my epiphany one day when I was trying to explain "percent" to a low-level class by parsing "per" and "cent". For "cent", I began with how many cents in a dollar, and I heard the correct answer blurted. Then, how many years in a century -- complete silence, then a few guesses, like 10 years, 20 years, 1000 years, and a couple 100 years. It occurred to me that if a person doesn't know "century", then 1) it's impossible to grasp history, and 2) there must be a lot of ordinary words that teachers use in passing that students don't understand.

I began amassing such words until it was pointed out to me that that job has already been attended to by Eric Hirsch, in his "Cultural Literacy" books and his endeavor to raise consciousness of such gaping blanks.

Since my enlightenment, I constructed a 1st-day quiz, the same for all of my classes, up to middle and higher math. "What is a century?" was one of the questions, and typically, even at upper levels there was no more than about 2/3 correct answers. My original question was "How many years are in a century?", but I realized that I was giving a potent hint, and results fell a bit when I simplified the question.

The problem is very big and general, and on the subject of slavery and some others, aggravated by faculty pouring their world-view into these unprepared minds, while they also do not encourage students to research for themselves. I found that my CC colleagues and administration were in general disinterested in addressing the larger issue(s).

David Goldberg

Anonymous said...

The main problem with education today is that a significant percentage of people in the U.S. do not value education or knowledge. If parents are constantly telling their children that everything they learn in school is useless, why should students value it?

I think a quote from the 2012 State of Texas Republican party platform says a lot to me.
"We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs"

Republican candidates dominate the school committee of the state that buys the most textbooks and they want to eliminate the teaching of critical thinking skills in lower education. Most teachers know that one of the best things they can teach their students is how to think and figure things out for themselves. In many far right conservative dominated states, a teacher can be fired for teaching critical thinking skills. The goals in many of these states is to get children to parrot back what the teacher says without question. This is especially true when a city has a school board dominated by religious right fundamentalists where the goal is to ignore the constitution and replace science and history classes with the teaching of religion.

Click here said...

The thing is extremely huge and also basic, and also dedicated to slavery and several other folks, aggravated simply by school serving their particular world-view directly into these kinds of unprepared heads, although in addition they usually do not inspire pupils to research regarding by themselves.