We Need to Develop New Ways to Teach Students History

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Mr. Wineburg is Professor of Educational Psychology and Adjunct Professor of History, University of Washington, Seattle, and the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple, 2001).

Psychologists define craziness as the tendency to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. So take the following history test and find out if your ideas about our kids and what they know about history are crazy or not.

Identify the source of this quotation:

"Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride."

Does this statement come from:

(a) A 1987 National Assessment, after which testers argued that low scores doom youth to"ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship and parenthood."

(b) Results of a 1976 test of American youth, published under the banner,"Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited."

(c) Reports of a 1942 history exam that prompted Columbia historian Allan Nevins to write that high school students are"all too ignorant of American history."

(d) None of the above.

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.

The quotation comes from a report of a 1917 test of 668 Texas students. Less than 10 percent of school-age children attended high school in 1917; today, enrollments are nearly universal. The whole world has turned on its head during the last century but one thing has stayed the same: Young people remain woefully ignorant about history.

Guess what? Historians are ignorant too, especially when we equate historical knowledge with the"Jeopardy" Daily Double. I know because I presented a series of short-answer questions to a group of professional historians. Those specializing in American history did just fine. But those with specialties in medieval, European and African history failed miserably when confronted by items about Fort Ticonderoga, the Olive Branch Petition, or the Quebec Act -- all taken from a typical textbook.

According to the testers, the results from the recent National Assessment in History, like scores from earlier tests, show that young people are"abysmally ignorant" of their own history. Invoking the tragedy of last September, historian Diane Ravitch hitched her worries about our future to the idea that our nation's strength is endangered by youth who do poorly on such tests. But if she were correct, we would have gone down the tubes in 1917!

There is a huge difference between saying"Kids don't know the history we want them to know" and saying"Kids don't know history at all." Historical knowledge burrows itself into our cultural pores even if young people can't marshal it when faced by a multiple choice test. If we weren't such hypocrites (or maybe if we were better historians) we'd have to admit that today's students follow in our own footsteps.

For too long we've fantasized that by rewriting textbooks we could change how history is learned. The problem, however, is not the content of textbooks but the very idea of them. No human mind could retain the information crammed into these books in 1917, and it can do no better now.

But facts are important, so we'd better get used to this one: Today's youths get their history from the screen. From MTV clips to C-SPAN coverage, from 24-hour programming on the History Channel to the design-your-own-history curriculum of the Internet, the past comes at today's teens from every quarter. A lot of this stuff may be junk, but it's junk that influences them more than any weighty work of history.

Recently I asked a group of teens what they knew about the Vietnam War. Not one made reference to a history book or, for that matter, to anything learned in school. But over half talked at length about the movie"Forrest Gump."

Rather than pretending that we can do away with popular culture, let's try a radically different tack. Let's place accurate history on film at the center of the history curriculum. Let's teach kids how they're being seduced, manipulated and bamboozled by a celluloid version of the past that, when approached uncritically, dooms them to an Oliver Stone Age.

We'll need new kinds of resources to supplement this approach. Not our current one-stop, Plato-to-NATO textbooks, but shorter, more focused texts, filled with original documents and carefully assembled to confront, challenge and complicate the reigning Gumpian histories. We won't be able to touch on every fact of American history in this new curriculum -- maybe Fort Ticonderoga and the Quebec Act will have to wait until college -- but what we do teach we'll be able to teach in greater depth. Not only will kids retain more history this way but if we do our job as educators, they'll be more thoughtful about it as well.

The alternative is to keep on doing what we've been doing all along. When the predictable headline appears after the next history exam, we might just want to reconsider whether it's our kids who are at fault. Maybe we're the nutty ones, who keep doing the same thing but expecting a different result.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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More Comments:

Steven R Alvarado - 1/25/2006

While in college one of my professors stated that "If you ever run across someone who states that they know the "true" history of anything, move away from them, they are deranged"

Rolf Karl Krogs?ter - 6/3/2005

The need to develope new ways to teach history.

American schools could start by focusing more on the true picture of their American history and less on the government propaganda history to indoctrinate and Americanize the next generation. Though perhaps that is not such a fine idea as the larger % of the next generation would perhaps become expatriots and leave the country out of shame.

buffone - 6/11/2002

I would have to disagree. The curriculum in my daughter's high school is full of the traditional 'facts and figures' type history (you know, the kind of teaching that sucks the life out of history!). In my opinion, it is woefully incomplete and continues to dumb down our future generation. To me, this same-o same-o information is a form of indoctrination that moves students into the 'stepford' realm of education and community participation: it makes them unwilling, uninterested, uninspired and (worse) too intimidated to question or challenge the status quo.

Of course, somewhere in the middle of all these opinions we may find our answer.

Andrea Clark - 6/9/2002

Not too long ago I finished my seventeen years of schooling and subsequently taught high school history for a short while after that. Thus, although I am not an historian and did eventually quit teaching, I'd like to think that I am qualified to have an opinion on this issue.
I can understand how Mr. Wineburg's proposition can easily be construed as a version of dumbing down, but in my mind it needn't necessarily be so. Why shouldn't we gradually change the way that history is fed to students? Perhaps we tend to forget that the vast majority of people in America assimilate most of their information much differently than we did a hundred years ago. Like it or not, that change has occurred and I can't imagine things reverting back to the way they were.
I am not by any means suggesting that teachers toss out the books and rely on Hollywood to give history lessons. However, I see benefit and not harm in giving some lessons in other forms, such as snappy, MTV-esque video productions. I was amazed at how much my students could soak up from a well-done, interesting documentary. Naturally, they tended to have poorer retention rates for the readings I assigned to them. And you know what? I readily admit that it was pretty depressing when I realized this difference. But it was there, it was real, and there was no doubt about.
One last thing. Perhaps I am a product of how my generation grew up (I'm 25), but I recall watching a few videos here and there in high school and college... and I remember a surprisingly large amount of information from them. More, perhaps, than I remember from some of my books, which I labored through and studied so intensely. Sad, but true.

A. Clark

John Gorentz - 6/7/2002

Putting historical films up for analsysis of historical accuracy by students could be a very productive activity. Good idea. But teaching in "greater depth" at the high school level? I've heard that line at my kids' high school. It's a code phrase for imparting less of the information that would enable kids to connect the dots for themselves. It's a code phrase for indoctrination rather than education.

Pierre S. Troublion - 6/4/2002

What a cop-out ! We see the results of three decades of dumbing down high school and the prescription is
MORE dumbing down ?! If kids are better at watching TV than reading books, should we develop simpler, more entertaining books to compete with TV ? Turn history classes into video arcades and let the students vegetate in front of the screens ?

I don't know if this sort of nonsense is typical in "educational psychology" but it sounds like a great way to make the history profession even more irrelevant and discredited than it already is.

Real teachers, if there are any left in Seattle, know that one can make history exciting and appealing without embracing