The War on History

…it looks like the schools have won and history has lost. A recent survey indicates that less than a quarter of American students are scoring at or above the “proficient” level in their knowledge of this subject. For twelfth graders, the number is only 12%.

More from Joanne Jacobs and her commenters. Few high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought the U.S. during the Korean war. Most fourth graders were unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure. Only a third of fourth graders were able to identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And only 2% of 12th graders can name the social problem — school segregation — that Brown vs. the Board of Education was supposed to correct, even after reading: “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” That number is two percent.

While these results are disturbing, they should not be surprising to anyone who has been keeping up. Evidence has been building for years that the American school system is generally doing a very poor job in the teaching of history. I’ve seen data from 2002 showing that 15% of high school students actually believed that the U.S. and Germany had been allies during World War II. And the failures of history teaching extend through college level. In 2008, historian David McCullough spoke to seminar of some twenty-five students at an Ivy League college, all seniors majoring in history, all honors students. “How many of you know who George Marshall was?” he asked. None did.

So why is this happening?

A big part of the problem is the temporal bigotry that seems to be inculcated in so many “educators.” This is the belief that people today are so much wiser and more knowledgeable than people of past eras that we couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from them. In a post several years ago, a blogger mentioned that he had encountered a teacher who said “Kids learn so much these days. Did you know that today a schoolchild learns more between the freshman and senior years of high school than our grandparents learned in their entire lives?” (“She said this as if she had read it in some authoritative source”)

It is easy to take this teacher’s assertion apart, as I did in this post, but her attitude seems to be a depressingly common one among those who teach for a living–and, I suspect, even more common among the ed-school denizens who are responsible for teaching the teachers.

It also seems to me likely that the blank-slate theory of human nature which is held by so many on the Left, consciously or implicitly, has something to do with this. If human beings were indeed infinitely malleable–if there were really no such thing as human nature–then people living 500 years ago, whose life experiences had been very different from our own, might not have so much to teach us.

The attempt to blame the poor history results on NCLB and the increased emphasis on reading/math seems to me to be pretty lame. The testing and the reading/math focus were not put in place at random; they were put in place because the schools were known to be doing a poor job in these areas and because everything else–including history–depends on some level of proficiency in one or both of these subject. It is certainly not impossible to teach reading and writing and arithmetic and history–most American schools once did exactly that, not perfectly by a long shot, but better than they are doing at present–but that was before the era of teachers’ unions, over-administration, and the dominance of theory and political indoctrination in the ed schools.

Related thoughts from David McCullough in this weekend’s WSJ and from Erin O’Connor.

23 thoughts on “The War on History”

  1. If you really want to be depressed watch Jay Leno interview the “man in the street”. Perhaps some of the reason is that the public school teachers and administrators don’t know basic history either.

  2. One thing that needs more attention is the contribution of the Ed Schools to the current problems. Most of their activities seem to range from useless to harmful, yet year after year they are allowed to continue their depradations on America’s future teachers and hence on America’s youth and society.

    Most of these schools are part of supposedly-respectable universities….seems to me it’s as irresponsible for a university president to allow these places to continue in their current form as it would be for the CEO of Boeing to allow the continued production of a model he knows will have a 60% crash rate.

    And how about faculty members in other, more academically-respectable detartments? Most professors love to protest–how about directing some of that protest energy at the failure factory across the campus?

  3. I swear, if I were really paranoid, I’d believe that miseducation complex is deliberatly making history boring and trivial as possible, in accordance with the dictates of Gramsci. I see that a comment on the linked Joanne Jacobs thread quoted CS Lewis, about destroying a society by cutting it off from the memory of it’s past. Yep – without knowing anything very much of your historical past, you are in a sort of cultural sensory-deprivation tank.
    Still, there is a definite hunger to learn history, one way or another, among at least a good few – if the schools are falling down on their mission to educate. I went to a great many reenactment events this spring, and I was just thrilled to bits to see that many kids and older teens were participating, or at least fascinated by the events and set up. And last Friday, I was at an art exhibition (daughter’s BFF was having her very first showing) and I finished up spending most of the evening talking to one of the other artists and his twenty-something aged son. The artist was a mad history fanatic, and his son didn’t know much, but was interested, and so I began recommending the books that he ought to read, to get an angle on the history of Texas generally. The son wound up scribbling a whole long list.
    Sheesh – this is why I write historical novels myself – to teach it in a relatively painless and entertaining way!

  4. Public K-12 education in the US has become centered on babysitting and on teaching “material” over mastery. The most important virtues pounded into students are compliance with authority and dutiful completion of busy work. At the end of this process students receive a high school diploma, though it could easily be renamed a high school participation ribbon. Graduation of a public high school in the US guarantees no level of knowledge or skill.

    This is why college education has been exploding, because employers have been increasingly forced to rely on college education as a proxy for basic literacy and numeracy, since high school no longer concerns itself with such things. Hopefully sometime soon our nation will wake up and realize what’s going on.

  5. Two factors haven’t been mentioned. Women of high ability are no longer going into teaching. This also affects nursing although my niece avoided medical school because of the debt and is enjoying her work on a liver transplant team at Rush in Chicago. She should be a physician.

    The elementary education students at most colleges are the lowest quintile of students. When my ex-wife went back to teaching briefly about 15 years ago, after 30 years out of it, she was appalled. She told me she would home school if our kids were still small. Not only were the teachers poorly motivated, they would ridicule the kids to each other. That was a middle class, majority white school east of Los Angeles.

    There are a few good teachers left. When she complimented a second grade teacher on the reading readiness of the kids from her class, the woman burst into tears. No one had ever complimented her on her teaching. The principal begged her to sign a contract (She was a long term sub) but she found another banking job and she now (at age 70) works for the FDIC closing and liquidating failed banks. Her only degree is in elementary education. There are few like her in education anymore but a lot of this is history.

    Personally, I think the teachers’ union is a baneful force here as it enforces mediocrity. I would favor merit pay for teachers and a lot higher level of salary with a vigorous pruning of administration. I know that the LA Unified School District has far more administrators than teachers. A lot of this is due to micromanagement by the legislature.

  6. MK…re women of high ability not going into K-12 education as frequently as they once did—I think there are several factors, in addition to opening up of more opportunities of other types, that tend to deter high-ability people from this career:

    1)The increased tolerance of bad student misbehavior, implying that a teacher is likely to face repeated disrespect and possibly even physical violence. There are a few very dedicated high-quality people who will put up with this; most will not.

    2)Micromananagement by administrations and legislatures, removing decision-making authority from teachers.

    3)The lock-step nature of promotions and salary increases, which does not appeal to people who want to be paid and promoted based on their individual achievement rather than on seniority and on the taking of random university courses.

    4)The requirement in many jurisdictions for teachers to have ed school degrees, combined with the soul-deadening nature of most of these programs.

  7. Thousands of homescoolers have gone back to the classical model — using the steps of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In elementary school, memory work can be pounded in like pegs on which to hang other factual data later in life, when it comes time to interpret and use the material in a rhetorical way. The method is explained in Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” The program is called “Classical Conversations.” Kids in the program have no problem at all remembering the facts talked about in this blog post, and hundreds more.

  8. Dr. Kennedy:

    May I pose a hypothetical?

    The year is 2030. After considerable hard work, long hours, and financial hardship, your niece gets a medical degree and works her way through the various internships, fellowships, and residencies to qualify to practice medicine at a high level of proficiency. Your niece is in a defacto form of public employment as doctor compensation is regulated by a Federal Commission. She could, potentially, work outside the system and set up a traditional fee-for-service practice; although that hasn’t been outlawed, there are a variety of reason few doctors choose to do that.

    Furthermore, although subject to a merit review system, your niece’s compensation has been pretty much fixed for the past however many years on account of Commission regs. As a result of a deep recession and a need for cost cuts in governmental medical expenditures — Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare Insurance Exchanges — the President of the United States announces on a Friday “news dump”, “Oh by the way, all medical people at all levels will be subject to an 8 percent pay cut, collective bargaining by medical worker unions will be terminated, and a contingency plan is in place to have military medics to step into hospitals if there is any labor dispute.”

    Your niece does not belong to a union, but the nurses do, and there is this mass demonstration by nurses on the Mall.

    I guess your niece could speak for herself, and you Dr. Kennedy, I believe you have told us you are a senior person who will have long been in retirement by 2030 when these events take place. But hypothetically speaking, what would be your sentiments?

    Not-so-hypothetically speaking, would you advise your niece, who in your expert and informed judgement would make an excellent physician or surgeon, to eventually get out of the medical field and certainly not bother with medical school, maybe advise her to get training to become something less public sector and much more Libertarian/entrepreneurial, say, an HVAC contractor? I mean you know that the medical field is moving in the direction to become what public education is now, efforts to roll back Obamacare notwithstanding.

  9. When I asked my senior Government teacher why he had chosen to be a history major he said, “It was the easiest degree he could get”. Does that tell you why your children come out of the schools without knowing history? I dropped that class and moved to AP Government. I loved my AP Government teacher but she retired a few years later after I graduated. She had been bullied by the department leader for being “too conservative” and it was so widely known that the students complained about it. I can go on and on how bad my high experience with high school history was. I graduated in 2005 and it was already horrific but it seems to get worse every year. I went to public school because my parents didn’t think they could home school. However, they made an effort to teach us history at home. Everything I know about history comes from my parents efforts and not the school’s efforts. Every time my husband sees these articles he gets one step closer to the idea we should home school our children when they become school age.

  10. I am quite chary of drawing conclusions from this type of report. Kids these days are very cynical about standardized testing. If there is nothing at stake in a test, they will expend no effort on it, and may even give incorrect answers deliberately.

  11. No. The speculation about philosophy of human nature may hold true for lefty academics at universities who teach teachers but the explanation at the school district levelis much simpler.

    Public schools teach history poorly for three reasons.

    1. A majority of those teaching history (usually “social studies”)have not majored in history. Many have not even minored in history. A synonym for “history teacher” at the HS level is usually “Coach”. You could improve the teaching of history markedly simply by requiring that those who teach it are qualified in the subject with at least a BA. MA would be better but that is a fantasy.

    Imagine if calculus and algebra were taught by PE instructors and elementary ed majors and you have a pretty good idea why the state of history instruction in this country sucks.

    2. NCLB has *deeply* impacted the the instructional time devoted to the teaching of history at the k-8 level and especially the k-6 level. The assertion is not “lame” or even an assertion but a fact because schools face penalties for not making AYP (“Adequate Yearly Progress”) in math and reading but not in other subjects. More time for math and english ( or straight test prep drill exercises like “math minutes”)has to come from taking time away from other subjects and those subjects are history, science, the arts or electives. Science is tested under NCLB regs, but the results bizarrely do not count for AYP, so science instructional time is minimal until later middle and high school.

    3. History textbooks are poorly constructed, boring, error ridden junk that excise almost every interesting story in history in an effort to superficially cover half a millenium of time without offending any politically active lobby group, California PC leftists or Texas religious right conservatives. Most of them are garbage (expensive garbage, running $ 90-120 a copy). Pick a few up and look for yourself, school districts are shelling out *billions* for them – we’d be better off spending that money on ppl who actually know history teaching students

    David McCullough was spot on in his assessment.

  12. I was a History Major. Twenty-Five years ago, College History Professors assumed (incorrectly for public school kids) that the students already know the basic what’s and when’s of Western history.

    What the Professors taught is what they published. Writing a book with a specific thesis on Medieval Scottish society or the role of religion in 19th Century American politics? That will be the next course offered (I took both, got A’s, and remember nothing of either.)

    Real history is only learned by individual research from multiple sources (first-hand accounts if possible) and analysis from different perspectives.

  13. I teach AP World History and US History Dual Enrollment in a Texas high school(kids get college credit from local cc). I am also an adjunct instructor at a major university. The stats cited in the article do not reflect the knowledge levels of my kids. My students are generally quite bright and in many cases on par with college kids. Do not get depressed – there are many teachers out here who are not union progressives. There are many kids who have a deep understanding of historical events. Come on down here and survey my students!

  14. Michael Kennedy:

    I haven’t had time to follow your link, and I will take you at your word that your niece has the charm, stage presence and musical talent to succeed as a musician. Given your own credentials in the medical field, I also take you at your word that she would make a fine doctor.

    I am sure your niece will do OK whatever career path she chooses. But will society be OK, that she and many others like her avoid a calling to medicine, especially as Universal Health Care evolves into something resembling Universal Public Education? And that who remains in medicine will be mediocrities, much as who (are alleged) to staff Public Education?

    Maybe someone who takes offense at a minor cut in pay (or a redirection in pay towards one’s generous benefits package, as I am often corrected) as a perhaps short-term response to a government budget crisis simply doesn’t have a calling to a service profession, be it education or be it medicine. On the other hand, I hear you calling for increased pay along with merit pay as a way of attracting the best and the brightest into education, and your solution to the education crisis is posed with the backdrop of that plan in Wisconsin (and other states) to apply across-the-board reductions in compensation without respect to merit, qualifications, or impact of that person’s service.

  15. My WAG is that the students in this country fall into a power law distribution. The best 20% are good or very good, the rest are mediocre to very poor. It is more of the de-democratization of the USA. The best kids in the best schools get decent stuff, the rest get crap. More of the drift to oligarchy.

  16. My daughter just completed her freshman year at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She went in majoring in astronomy but after consideration, she’s going to major in physics and get a credential to teach physics and biology. Teaching will also result in some eventual forgiveness of her $100k in student loans.

    My concern is how to help her see the downside of her education in education. Physics I’m not too worried about but the ed school has got to be full of liberals.

  17. On the other hand, I hear you calling for increased pay along with merit pay as a way of attracting the best and the brightest into education, and your solution to the education crisis is posed with the backdrop of that plan in Wisconsin (and other states) to apply across-the-board reductions in compensation without respect to merit, qualifications, or impact of that person’s service.

    Paul, my suggestion for merit pay necessarily includes an unspoken caveat that teacher’s unions must go. Unions, by necessity, enforce mediocrity. The fiscal problems of Wisconsin (and California) are related to two forces in play the past 40 years. One is the power of public employee unions to elect complaisant public officials who will increase their pay and benefits far above those in the private sector. Teachers were traditionally underpaid and taught as a life’s work because they loved it or, being women, had alternate careers closed to them.

    The other is the similar nexus between pressure groups and spending.

    I have been unalterable opposed to doctors’ (and nurses’) unions. They would have similar effects in enforcing mediocrity. The nurses’ union in California is one of the most radical forces in state politics. One interesting development that, I suspect, few are aware of is the increasing leftward political slant of medical students. They will slide into careers as public employees comfortably. Already, even women physicians acknowledge that women in medicine are about half as productive as men. Admission committees in the 1950s knew this, which is why they discriminated against women in an era of doctor shortage.

    Speaking of History, my middle daughter (age 30) is now beginning a PhD program in History at the U of Southern California. She remarked that she had not taken a course in History since junior college. Her plan, well along, is to study Arabic manuscripts in Spain from the Andalusian period. She speaks and reads Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese and has lived in Spain. She was awarded a five year grant for tuition and all expenses, including another year in Spain. She just completed her library science masters’ degree and has worked in research libraries since undergraduate years.

    She is also beautiful (sorry) and has been close to her cousin (my niece) since they were toddlers. Her husband also got his masters in library science and lived in Spain with her. All my kids have been educated in private schools since 1978. My youngest daughter (off to London this afternoon) had assignments like “Analyze the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression treaty of 1939 from the POV of the Nazis and of Stalin.” It was a ten page essay in junior year. That was private school.

  18. Teacher Bob: Thank you. My kids took both AP Euro and AP American and got 5s on their tests. They learned a lot and I appreciated it. They got their college credit and did not take much history in College. [2 of them majored in math, the other in theater (she knows a lot more about Shakespeare than most English majors)]

    Learning history is a peculiar business. The more you know, the easier it is to learn and understand. The first steps are the hardest. I have an M.A. in history focused on 19th Century America. but I did not consider myself to have learned much until I filled in holes in my knowledge that formal history programs did not have the expertise to comment on:

    1. Religion was, and still is, a driving force in American society. Academic historians, raised in the Marxist dogma that religion is an epiphenomenon, have no understanding of it and its power to move men.

    2. English history. American history, particularly the Revolution and the establishment of the Federal Government is incomprehensible outside the context of English history. Practically every phrase in the Constitution is an echo of an issue in the 17th century struggle between the Stuarts and Parliament.

    2. Banking. Trade finance and banking are complex and not understood outside the business and legal worlds that use them on a day to day basis. After 20 years of practicing commercial law, I could understand the issues that were driving 19th Century American politics. The only good books on the history of Banking in the US were written by non-Academic historians, Bray Hammond and James Grant.

  19. Evidence has been building for years that the American school system is generally doing a very poor job in the teaching of history.

    Is there anything the American school system is teaching well?

    I was tempted to snark “Sex education”, but the evidence doesn’t seem to support that, either, judging from the rates of unwanted pregnancies and divorce.

  20. I’d rather be taught by the PE teacher than an avowed socialist/communist. The coach will stick to a typical lesson plan, but the socialist will demand absolute political obedience from her students.

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