Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

History Lessons and Civic Literacy

Recent posts by Joe about civic literacy, as well as Schramm’s mention of the lesson plans we’ve been developing for the NEH, leads me to share this anecdote.

The project is finally winding down, and we’ve been asked to have teachers test the lessons in their classrooms. The folks at the NEH helpfully provided a form for teachers to complete, most of which was reasonable. However, I reacted viscerally to one of the questions on the form: Did your students gain a broader understanding of how historians use a range of evidence to craft narratives explaining the past and its significance for the present and the future?

Well, I don’t think teachers would be able to say yes to that question for any of the lessons we’ve done. I don’t believe that history should be taught in high school for the purpose of showing what historians do; it’s only (at best) a secondary function of what I see as my role in teaching undergraduates.

Why? Because practically no high school students--and only a tiny percentage of college history majors--are going to become professional historians. Those that intend such a career will undoubtedly learn the finer points of the craft in graduate school. For me, the reason why students need to know history is to make them better citizens--there’s that "civic literacy" thing again. They will better understand their society, and their responsibility as educated citizens in it, by knowing the past--both of the United States and, more broadly, of Western Civilization. If the role of high school history is to hone their skills in "crafting narratives" based on multiple sources, then the subject matter is purely secondary. It doesn’t even have to be true--certainly one could use Tolkein’s various books to write a pretty interesting narrative about the history of Middle Earth.

If John Dewey and his acolytes are right, and education is about learning skills, rather than facts....well, let’s just say they’d be better off learning how to "frame a wall" (whatever that means) then learning to "craft narratives."

Discussions - 4 Comments

In general I agree, repeat agree, though in my experience there are some students, even in high school, who can handle going beyond civics, once they have a grasp of what is their own. It is a subtle business to move between the two classroom tasks - to manage a conversation, in effect, between Aristophanes and Socrates.

That said, most of the damage to which John Moser implicitly refers comes from AP courses and their aspirations. Anybody want to take that on?

In high school, I took an AP test in Calculus... I remember spending months memorizing all the formulas needed to complete this exam (probably 2 dozen) and learning what type of problem each applied to. Last year, I visited my teacher and learned that students no longer bothered to memorize the formulas: now, the entire test is concept-based.


Though I see the merit of this type of critical thinking in math and the sciences, I think there are some disciplines (history, especially) in which there needs to be more emphasis on being able to identify significant events and when they occurred. Of course, students should still be able to interpret these events and combine knowledge of these events to form arguments, but simply learning how to read two historical documents and write an prompted essay is essentially worthless to someone who plans to take a college placement test and then forget about their AP or college prep courses.


I don't think you can necessarily discount critical thinking because it enables people that don't take courses on Weber or Burke to understand those texts if they read them on their own. However, kids should have a basic understanding of the Constitution, Declaration and American History as part of their high school and post-secondary education.

To frame a wall is to nail together the studs and horizontal members (name escapes me) that the drywall, paneling, lath for plaster, or whatever are attached to in the course of building a wooden framed wall, which most walls are.

Okay, thanks Ed. I've actually hung drywall before, so I hope I get a partial manliness point for that.

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