Other K-12 teachers will introduce primary sources, literature, film,
paintings, and material culture to the classroom; will plan field
trips, imaginative exercises, and debates; will model for students how to
construct their own understanding of history, using the textbook as a
backup reference source, not as a state-sanctioned repository of
History Itself. That approach to teaching history is one that I and
probably most people who study history like better, and one that I like
to think is more likely to spark at least some students' lifelong
interest in the subject. And it's one that mitigates the fallout of a
bad textbook. I fear that every current trend in American education—the emphasis on standardized testing, the expanded scheduling of rote
reading and math instruction at the expense of other subjects, the
skittish avoidance of any curricular unit that might be deemed
"controversial" (defining "controversial," of course, as "might make
someone uncomfortable," which is what history at its best is supposed to
do), the preference for watered-down, "age-appropriate" texts rather
than rich and complicated original documents, the devaluation of
advanced degrees or continuing education for teachers in the subjects
they teach, etc.—is pushing away from this model.
But I don't know for sure, and would be delighted to be proven wrong. I
admittedly don't spend much time interacting with K-12 teachers, and I
think our national discussion about education is generally woefully
unsolicitous of the actual experiences and concerns of actual teachers.
So, if you know more than I do about what sort of history teaching is
going on in our K-12 classrooms these days, I'd love to hear about it
in the comments. What I've gleaned from the media does not make me
optimistic, though of course, the media has biases of its own.
On that note, I would like to close this two-parter of an opening guest
post with a particularly heartbreaking story that I read in The New
York Times last year. The article
was ostensibly about how immigrant students are often segregated into
separate classes within their schools, which in its own right is a
development we could have any number of interesting discussions about.
But between the lines, the article, I thought, was better read as a
case study in how thoroughly standardized testing has colonized
American education. A major reason why students for whom English isn't
a first language tend to be shunted off into separate classes is
because school administrators are so terrified that these students will
do poorly on their standardized exams and bring down the school's No
Child Left Behind ratings. Thus, in the words of the Times reporter,
these students must be "relentlessly drilled and tutored on material
that appears on state tests." And if you're curious about what exactly
that looks like, the reporter also provides a telling image:
"Write this down," she told a class one day. "There's always a question about Huguenots."
Significant historical episodes are often reduced to little more than sound bites.
"You don't really need to know anything more about the Battle of
Britain, except that it was an air strike," Ms. Cain told one class.
"If you see a question about the Battle of Britain on the test, look
for an answer that refers to air strikes."
I try not to think about this
story too much, because the thought that all around the country today
and every day there are classroom teachers telling their students
versions of "You don't really need to know anything more about the
Battle of Britain" is fairly terrifying to me. For what it's worth, I
don't blame Ms. Cain any more than I blame the author of the Terrible
Textbook—I imagine that she cares about her students but is under
any number of informal and formal pressures to produce passing test
scores. As someone who knows that history can open up new worlds and as
someone who knows that 15-year-olds, and especially 15-year-olds who
may be poor or marginalized or stigmatized in their day-to-day lives,
are among those most desperately in need of doors to new worlds, I find
it tragic that we've created an education system in which this teacher
is instead limited to soundbites. I do not think we should pretend that
what is being taught in this story is history.
It's funny because back when this article came out, some person named Sara Mayeux wrote a bitterly dashed-off letter to the editor in response:
No wonder dropout rates are high. It appears that the testocracy that runs
our schools has turned even the most vital, engaging stories of human
history into an exercise akin to memorizing phone books.
If I were still in high school, I might find something better to do with my time, too.