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."