Do Schools Really Need to Teach History?

We've all heard the old adage that those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it - but even if we're taught history in school, how well do we really learn it? After all, students around the country routinely show a lack of aptitude in the subject both on test scores and in practical situations. Should we abolish history education altogether, then, or is the problem in how we teach it?

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By Eric Garneau


A Dire Outlook

Ask any frustrated K-12 student what they think about their history class and they're likely to respond with some variation of the answer 'Who needs history? What a bunch of people did in the past doesn't really mean anything to me.' And though their attitude may not exactly be justifiable, their lack of engagement's certainly reflected in test scores. According to a September 2011 New York Times article, Department of Education tests in history have elicited the worst student results over the past decade.

Further, college professors across the U.S. are commonly known to bemoan the lack of historical knowledge in their incoming freshmen. That same New York Times article details the lack of knowledge many students have about the civil rights movement; according to one professor, no students in his classes had heard of George Wallace, a segregationist governor of Alabama. Further, only two of every 100 high school seniors tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress could identify that the phrase 'Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal' as relating to a civil rights segregation case.

Dour statistics like that have caused some to question whether we should even bother with history education in the first place. Perhaps pertinent historical facts could be grouped into other relevant classes - for instance, a timeline of important scientific discoveries in biology, or maybe a discussion of the aforementioned civil rights movement in social studies. But for some educators, the problem lies not within the subject itself, but with its teachers.

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How to Really Teach History

In February 2007 Bruce VanSledright, head of the history education program at the University of Maryland - College Park, took to the American Historical Association's journal Perspectives to write an essay challenging traditional assumptions about teaching his discipline. Entitled 'Why Should Historians Care about History Teaching,' the essay argues that the lack of knowledge found in incoming college freshmen can be traced back to the historians and college professors who educated those students' teachers. There's a pedagogical error in history education, and VanSledright wants to fix it.

According to VanSledright, the issue is that history educators tend to focus too much - which is to say, almost exclusively - on memorization of dates, people, places and events. In that morass of facts, the actual work of historians - namely interpretation - gets totally obscured. That leads students to not even realize that history, like basically every other discipline under the liberal arts umbrella, is based in critical thinking, not fact-checking. Historians need to be able to process different arguments, texts and interpretations and formulate a cogent argument for their own reading of important events. That's not going to be accomplished by students who think that they fail history if they can't name all the U.S. presidents in order.

History teaching shouldn't be abolished, then, as much as it should be overhauled. In fact, one can imagine a curriculum where history becomes a cornerstone subject - what better way to teach students the crucial skill of 'reading' and interpreting real-world events? But perhaps history as most students know it does need to go. At the risk of sounding too bold, how much do simple facts matter in an era of smartphones? Isn't what we do with knowledge more important than the knowledge itself? If students aren't allowed to figure out for themselves why the study of history is compelling and relevant, it seems doomed not to be. takes a closer look at why students have such a poor understanding of history.

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