Don’t Know Much About History… Still!

That headline in yesterdays’s AP story gave me no pleasure. The latest in the perennial drumbeat of bad news about failing American History grades in American schools has just been released. And it is as bad as ever.

We seem to be no better off now than we were back in 1987 when the first major survey was called “What Our 17 Year Olds Know.” (It would have been more appropriately entitled “What they don’t know.”)

So the first simple question is:

Why Are we so Bad at History?

There has been an assumption that we all hate history, probably because all the surveys keep telling us that. But the simple fact is that people really don’t hate history. They just hate the dull, watered-down version they were forced to learn in school.  And that is Reason #1 that we don’t know much about History.

Reason #2 is an old problem that has gotten worse. We don’t spend enough time teaching history. That problem has worsened over the past few years, according to history teachers I speak with, because of No Child Left Behind. History teachers often tell me that they are pulled away from their regular curriculum to assist in standardized test preparation in math and reading because judging school performance and funding for schools has been reduced to how well children do on these tests. And yes, far too many teachers have come into the system without sufficient understanding of history and its importance.

Reason #3 is the media –both news and entertainment. There is still tremendous distortion of history in the daily news –some of it deliberate by people with agendas. Then there is the problem of Hollywood History. There are millions of children who think that Pocahontas was a buxom Disney character in a tight, deerskin skirt.

What Can We Do?

The solution to this epidemic of historical ignorance is fairly simple.

•If we think history is so important, spend more time actually teaching it.

Throw out the textbooks. Okay, maybe not actually. But I don’t know any teachers or students who enjoy textbooks. History is first and foremost STORY. Tell great stories of real people doing real things. We are in a golden age of great historical writers who know how to tell stories. Use them in the classroom. I have seen kids in elementary school who show total curiosity and enthusiasm about history. By high school, that excitement is sucked out of them by rote learning and dishwater dull textbooks.

•Field trips. I know. You shudder at the thought of brown bags and bus rides. But going to the places where history happens makes all the difference in the world. My love of history came from camping trips to places like Gettysburg, Valley Forge and Fort Ticonderoga. And you don’t have to be near Boston, Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia to see history. It is everywhere.

Stop lying. Museums and historic sites have to tell the truth, not a sanitized, cosmetically perfect version. In Florida, a recreated Spanish village tells visitors that the French were “banished” from Florida by the Spanish in 1565. That’s just not true. They were massacred in a religious bloodbath. Now that is an interesting story. Places like Monticello and Mount Vernon, on the other hand, have come light years from the stodgy museums they once were. They are exciting but more important honest. Both openly deal with the question of slavery in realistic and vivid terms. They don’t try and hide the truth that Jefferson and Washington were slaveholders.

Use the media. There are some great movies about history, like Glory. Use them to teach. There are many more awful movies about history. We can use them too, by watching and saying “This is not the way it happened.” The real story of Pocahontas is a lot more interesting than the Disney cartoon version. Use that –don’t run away from it.

Cross-pollinate. By this I mean what the academics like to call “interdisciplinary approach.” Teaching American colonial history? Make sure the English teacher is having the class read The Crucible. Then you can talk about the real Salem Witch Trials –who isn’t interested in witches?– as well as the McCarthy Era which inspired Arthur Miller to write the play.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned about  getting people interested in History. So the secret to this success was simple: “If you build it, they will come.” Just tell people about history in a way that is lively, meaningful, fun, relevant and most important, human, and they will listen. Work with curiosity  instead of destroying it with myths, lies and tedium. Make it fun. But mostly make it real.

  • Jphelan

    Great comments. I was especially pleased by your suggestion to teachers to try to “cross-pollinate” The interdiscipinary approach is something which EDSITEment really strives for in our lesson plans and student interactives. To take your example of the Salem Witch Trials,  we not only have a history lesson on it http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/understanding-salem-witch-trials, we also have a lesson on Arthur Miller’s play The  Crucible http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/dramatizing-history-arthur-millers-crucible. We find this is one of our most popular lessons.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vibha.f.shah Vibha Fenil Shah

    I agree with your ideas. History can be fun and all the difference is the way it can be taught. Our school district teachers apply your methods and they have got pretty good results. both ny kids love history and can discuss it a lot.