Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Good News for the Holiday

Thanks to regular commenter, R.O.B., for bringing this heartening story from David Broder to my attention today. Broder recounts the testimony of David McCullough in hearings with Senators Lamar Alexander and Ted Kennedy (!) about the prospects for improving the teaching of American history in our schools. McCullough’s main point closely dovetails the example of his own work. History should be narrative. It should be written in a way that is engaging and interesting because--after all--history is engaging and interesting. It is only the studied ignorance of the last several academic generations that has served to make it boring. McCullough pointed to the emergence of the Harry Potter phenomenon as evidence that students are desirous of and willing to digest lengthy and interesting reading; and he decried the utter lack of depth and seriousness in most of the commonly used American history textbooks. These books are full of large type, glossy pictures and inane prose.

What can we do about this problem? I don’t know that much about the regulations governing teachers in the classrooms these days, but I do know--from talking with teachers who are serious about history and about teaching--that they often feel constrained by time constraints and state standards. Perhaps teachers need to be given more leeway to engage their classes in lengthy reading and discussion of things as they strike their interest. I know teachers have much to cover in a year--and it’s nearly impossible to do it all. So my question is: why is that the requirement? Why not cover a few things really well and forget about being comprehensive? Teachers should be treated like professionals and be given more freedom to make their subjects come alive for students. This won’t prevent bad or ideological teachers from doing mischief . . . but if school boards had more discretion in firing too, that shouldn’t be as insurmountable a problem as the current malaise in history education seems to be.

Discussions - 6 Comments


The sorry situation regarding teaching of history, or any other subject, will only improve after our teachers roll up their sleeves and go to work. At present teachers in the state of California work about six months a year, yet are being payed as though they are working a full year. These long wonderful summers at the surf should be reduced to one month, and Christmas and Easter holidays one week per year.
Only when teachers begin working the same hours that engineers, printers and plumbers and the rest of the planet work will our children have the opportunity to learn anything.
Sincerely Chris

It is only the studied ignorance of the last several academic generations that has served to make it boring.



I don't think that's the only reason it's so boring . . . You must have always had an awesome history teacher. Some of mine were a complete waste of my time . . . Had it not been for the entertaining little nuggets of scripture at the beginning of each chapter and the references to Communism as the devil's attempt to destroy America (both of which seem to be pillars of a Christian teaching of history - "studied ignorance" comes in many shades), I would've fallen asleep on a regular basis. Don't get me wrong - I had some awesome teachers (especially one in my later high school years, who actually prompted me to fall in love with the subject), but some people just should not be hired to teach.




Teachers should be treated like professionals and be given more freedom to make their subjects come alive for students.



Exactly - so long as they're decent narrators. But how does a school board measure this? I think that's the more difficult problem (which is probably why everyone is so quick to fall back on test results as an indicator of how well one is learning in school).

Matt: I almost always had very good history teachers, from 3rd grade on. Some of them were even approaching excellent. But none of them asked as much as they could have asked out of us. There was still too much emphasis on boring (though required) text books. Fortunately, I also had a natural curiosity about the subject that was probably inherited and certainly encouraged by my mother. And then I cam to Ashland . . . enough said. Fortune was good to me.

You say: Exactly - so long as they're decent narrators. But how does a school board measure this? I think that's the more difficult problem (which is probably why everyone is so quick to fall back on test results as an indicator of how well one is learning in school). Observation and common sense. The first requires time and effort the second requires trust and a diligent local electorate (for school boards). It really is not so difficult to tell who is a good teacher, who is just mediocre, and who simply ought to look elsewhere for gainful employment. These are the kinds of reforms parents should be working to achieve in their schools. Get control of the faculty and the books. If you, Matt, had a certain kind of "studied ignorance" influencing your history classes, it does not appear to have done lasting damage. Some--even misguided or one-sided--passion is still better than none. My best teacher in high school was probably something close to a socialist. He never really hid this from the curious student. If I were running a school today, I would not think twice about hiring him. He was a fabulous teacher--even if he skewed history to his own prejudices on occasion. I guess I have more faith in the good sense of stimulated students than most, however.

The first requires time and effort the second requires trust and a diligent local electorate (for school boards).



Wow. Now we're really doing some wishful thinking. :)

I guess I also have more faith in the good sense of a stimulated electorate.

I suggest to improve the teaching of high school history that we burn the textbooks. They are history digested and regurgitated and just as appealing as that sounds. When I taught history, the required textbook - that is, the book I was required to use for my course - was a reference for my students that I allowed my students to use as a study guide, but which I rarely used in class. I told the class the story and made them talk and think about people and ideas as they related to events, which reads as something simple, but it never was. My goal was to make those students want to talk about SOMETHING from my class later in the day. Reports of loud arguments over the lunchroom table over the right to bear arms and whether the first amendment extended to free expression of any kind filled me with delight while dismayed the lunch monitor. Pouring the remains of a milk carton over another student's head was certainly going too far, but that became part of the next day's discussion of the topic. When parents told me (only complained once) that they had to look things up to respond to their kids dinner table conversation, I felt I was getting somewhere.


Also, use literature of the period or about the period, read in conjunction with the history, to make the time come alive. As a home school mommy, I could blend those things as I liked.

McCullough ought to write a history textbook for high schools and not just complain. History is a story and deserves to be well-told, but textbooks are written by committees and the gloss and pictures are there to make up for the literary lack. A good writer would make all the difference.

Chris, I suggest you do not know what you are talking about. School teachers who are any good are very serious about professional development and classroom preparation. There are certainly lazy teachers who do as you suggest, but I am here at Ashland in the Ashbrook teacher's program this summer with high school and middle school teachers who are serious about their jobs and work as hard as any professional I know, and sometimes harder. These people work at their jobs all year, even if the are only in front of students for part of it. They are here to make themselves even better next year than they were in the last and are constantly looking for the resources to do a good job for their students, despite state and national standards which would seem to require teaching to the lowest common denominator rather than making students reach for a higher standard. I'll grant you there are poor teachers, but those who come here want to be good.

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