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Clippings: The importance of teaching history

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Posted on January 2, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



When I went home for breaks during college, I would sub at the schools I attended growing up. Sometimes teachers wrote detailed lesson plans, other times nothing — leaving me with 80 minutes of instructional time and a classroom of students.

On one of these occasions I presided over a civics class of high school seniors — a course I had taken just three years earlier. Without a lesson plan, I ignored the pleas of the soon-to-be graduates to watch the DVD of “Men In Black 2” that sat on the shelf behind the teacher’s desk, next to confiscated lighters and a bobblehead of Derek Jeter.

Instead, I offered the students a compromise — I would screen the film if they could demonstrate they could pass the U.S. Naturalization Test. To the perplexed eyes around the room I explained that the naturalization test is an exam that applicants for U.S. citizenship must pass. On it are a series of questions about the history of this country, important figures, and the structure of our government.

The students obliged, begrudgingly, and I looked up a sample test on the Department of Homeland Security’s website. I asked, “How many years is the term of a senator?” I was met with silence. Pressed further, the students hazarded guesses — two, four, five, six — arriving at the correct answer through a process of elimination.

This method would not bring success for further questions — “Who elects the president?” “The House of Representatives has how many voting members?” and “Who is the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?” These were left unanswered.

It was not that these students were unintelligent. My high school, in a middle-class suburb of Albany, N.Y., on the banks of the Hudson River, graduates more than 95 percent of its students, the majority of whom attend four-year colleges. Yet, how was it that these students were not able to answer the most basic questions about our history and government? This was, after all, a senior-level civics class.

They were, as their classmates in Vermont and across the country are, a casualty of the shift in American secondary education away from the humanities, history in particular.

Amid the push for science, technology, engineering and math curriculum (STEM), history has fallen out of favor. This is not to say that STEM curriculum is not important, as it enables students to compete in a globalized job marketplace — but it should not diminish the importance of understanding history.

President Obama’s push for STEM programs isn’t the first time the federal government has increased a focus on the sciences while leaving the humanities in the dust. The No Child Left Behind Act, President George W. Bush’s signature piece of domestic legislation, focuses on reading, writing and mathematics. (Worth noting is that Bush earned a degree in history from Yale, while Obama majored in political science at Columbia.)

To comply with these standards, schools have cut back classroom time for history. Not surprisingly, student performance in history has suffered. A 2011 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that less than one-quarter of students were proficient in history.

The failure of history education has much to do with the fact that it cannot be quantified like the sciences can. Thus, aptitude in history cannot be easily measured. A test that queries students on historical dates is a measure of their memorization rather than critical thinking skills.

It is not all that important to know the Declaration of Independence was adopted July 4, 1776. It is important to know what the document says and why it was written. The same holds true for current events, which affect us most.

I concede that I am more interested in the subject than others (I asked for two different books about John Adams for Christmas). But it does not change the fact that the most basic grasp of the story of this country is the bedrock of a well-informed citizen.

Every voter should be well versed in the structure of our government — from the federal level down to local selectboards. It is our civic duty. If our students cannot pass the test required of immigrants to our shores, how can they be able participants in our political system? Our students will one day populate our legislatures and executive offices — to fail to adequately educate them on our history does a grave disservice to ourselves and our posterity.

We must instead put history back in its proper place, alongside the sciences as a subject of equal importance.

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