Thursday, May 19, 2005

It is History Week at SLATE ( hat tip Cliopatria) and in a debate about the sorry state of historical knowledge in this country, scholar Diane Ravitch put her finger squarely on the systemic source of the problem - that most Americans are taught history by teachers in the public schools who are themselves, uneducated in any field of history:

"...in most states and most schools, history has gotten submerged and smothered by social studies. We know what history is, even if we argue about the specific issues to be included or how to interpret them. Social studies, on the other hand, is a curricular smorgasbord that includes all sorts of studies, which collectively diminish the time available for history. Social-studies teachers treat history as only one of a dozen different "studies" that they cover, and by no means the most important. Worse, they emphasize concepts and ignore chronology, which makes hash of history.

...because of the dominance of social studies and the diminution of history, a large percentage of people who teach history have not studied history; instead, they have majored in social-studies education, a social science, communications, or any number of other fields, but not history. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that a majority of people teaching history do not have a major or a minor in history. You can understand that when the teacher does not have an in-depth knowledge of history, it is very difficult to expect him or her to have a secure grasp of complex historical issues and debates and to be able to raise probing questions of the conventional accounts."

The reason for this national perpetuation of subpar instruction in a major field of knowledge is twofold. The first reason is the self-interest of the education system's major players.
School administrators, school boards, colleges of education and the States like having wide-open licensing criteria for teaching " Social Studies" instead of a rigorous standard for History because all benefit in having a vast oversupply of underqualified job applicants.

School boards and State education officials and legislatures have a buyer's interest in keeping teaching salaries low while Colleges of Education have a seller's interest in keeping the gate wide open. At a certain point, even in a mostly non-market based system like public education, specialty slots like bilingual special education, advanced mathematics and computer science/technology are quietly bidded up through signing bonuses, liberal placement on the salary schedule and changing job descriptions to become " administrative" posts, enabling higher salaries. If actual history degrees were required tomorrow to teach Social Studies then, at a minimum, two-thirds of the Social Studies teachers in America would have to be replaced. Colleges of Education, which process future teachers for the States, would lose a huge number of customers since the overwhelming majority of the communication and sociology majors turned Social Studies instructors will go on to get a Master's degree in Education, not in History or Political Science.

School administrators, particularly at the secondary level, also like the hiring " flex" that minimal Social Studies certification requirements provides in order to select the best possible football and basketball coaching staff. Recall the movie " Hoosiers" ? Rent it at Blockbuster this weekend and see if you can catch what Gene Hackman's character was allegedly hired to teach. This is no exaggeration and it has been going on for decades.

The second reason for the status quo, which most of the above players will sheepishly admit is not educationally ideal, is that historical ignorance engineered on a systemic basis becomes self-referential.

A principal who never learned history himself is unlikely to place a premium on a job applicant who did - or even be able to tell the difference between mediocrity and excellence because in comparison with ignorance, even a mediocre grasp of a an alien field of study seems impressive. State legislators who have not learned much history are content with an incoherent hodgepodege of learning standards across 5-6 social science fields, glibly presented by a fast-talking consultant, because they know no better. What they do know as politicians, is that too close a focus on controversial historical issues may enrage organized groups of constitutents, so blandness and thematic schizophrenia seem preferable.

We are in a box of our own making and it will take a long campaign to educate the public in order to force the politicians to let us out.
Thanks for explaining why Americans know so little about their own history.
You are welcome P.

I dabble in educational consulting and I once figured out that for my state, Illinois, to meet the State standards in Social Studies an instructor at the secondary level would have to, approximately, successfully teach three new concepts a day for 185 days.

This is simply not how students, even the most bright, learn. But it is a consequence of having standards that cover all the Social science fields, plus a good dollop of touchy-feely psychobabble, while skimming 7,000 years of recorded history.

Plus the State has killed their standardized test for Social Studies rendering the learning unmeasurable. This is actually ok because the State never actually spent the money to confirm that the test questions used were valid and reliable from a psychometric standpoint.

It's a joke but not an amusing one.
My daughter is a sophomore in high school (Connecticut) and is currently taking honors social studies. I am amazed at the depth and overall difficulty of the course. She's learned a great deal more Jefferson and Madison than I ever did. They spent a week disecting the meaning of every sentence in the Declaration of Independence. They've analyzed, compared/contrasted Presidential speeches, inauguaration addresses etc. They have just started doing the civil war and are using the Ken Burns documentary as a starting point. Needless to say, much of the class involves independent study; e.g. each person in the class has been assigned a major battle to present to the class. My daughter will present the battle of Murfreesboro. The teacher is very dedicated and expects a great deal from the students.

Hi Barnabus

That's wonderful that your daughter has that kind of a teacher - sounds like a gem !

AP and Honors course teachers tend to be a cut above in terms of professional preparation and experience - especially in schools that are located in larger, well-funded, upscale, school districts.

My beef isn't with the teachers - most of them are dedicated professionals. The problem isn't on the willingness to deliver in the classroom. However if you had 80 % of the nation's math instructors with degrees in something other than mathematics you would see very mediocre mean standardized test scores in that subject too.

I don't want to go to a dentist whose degree is in Urban planning or Horticulture. likewise I want my child instructed by highly qualified teachers who have genuine expertise in their field.
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