Sun, January 26, 2014

Why teach history in school?

by Rebecca Poulson
Why teach history in school?
The study of history gives our kids key skills we want them to have at graduation, and beyond: critical thinking skills; creativity; and communication skills.

Sitka, 1805 (Urey Lisiansky, A Voyage Round the World
in the Years 1803, 4, 5 and 6

To study history, you must learn how to sort through the mountains of information out there from and about the past, and determine what information is reliable and relevant. Then, you must organize it into something meaningful, that you can communicate to others.
When you write a history paper, you can’t rely on “in my opinion . . .” or “I think I heard once . . . .” You have to back up your statements with research and sources.
Information Literacy is an increasingly vital skill for young people. We are bombarded by information, or more accurately, data. When we research history, we have to learn how to decide whether what we find is reliable or relevant; we have to learn how to find the information we need, and be open to new ideas, without getting sidetracked. And, the information we need might not even be on the internet.
To write a history paper, you have to be creative. You can’t copy what someone has already done. Fortunately, in even the most popular subjects, like the Civil War, the topic is so vast, and so many people were involved, that there is no end to research you can do that is interesting and relevant to our lives today. In Alaska, historians have barely scratched the surface. Watershed events like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act happened in living memory.
And finally, we have to learn how to organize our research, and to communicate. We communicate through stories. The human brain cannot deal with data any other way. The historian cannot just compile a bunch of information – the historian must have a thesis, and organize her paper into a narrative to persuade her audience that this thesis helps explain the events and their meaning. We create narratives. If our young people are going to succeed in life and work, they have to be able to shape and communicate their work as a narrative that others will be interested in and understand.
So those are just the “hard” skills you gain from the study of history. Perhaps as important are the “soft” skills: learning about other people and how life works, how one persons story is affected by historic events, and how one person can influence history. How generations are affected by events like famine, war or recession. How battles are lost, or won. How people crack, or are resilient in tough situations. How love, ambition, competition, and ingenuity affect historic events. The motives and interactions behind corruption, great acts of heroism, survival, political movements. The way the actions and decisions of one generation profoundly affect the next.
But mainly, history is the study of people in the past doing interesting things. When we learn about other cultures – whether it’s the history of people on the other side of the planet, or our own ancestors – we learn about what makes us different, and what we have in common as humans. We learn who we are.
If history class is dull, we are doing something wrong! What could be more interesting than thousands of English soldiers going over the top, walking into enemy machine gun fire? The Trail of Tears? The Fenians attempting to take over Canada, so they could trade it for a free Ireland? The indigenous Tlingit halting Russian, and English, territorial advance?
As our public schools rely more on standardized testing – in Alaska, 50% of a teacher’s rating will soon be based on how well their students do on standardized tests – there is more and more pressure to teach what can be tested and to practice taking tests. Due to the nature of standardized testing, the Common Core-based curriculum places great emphasis on the skill of “close reading” of a text, getting all your information from the text itself, not from its context. Here is a piece about a sample unit – from the creators of the Common Core standards –  for the Gettysburg Address. It’s no coincidence that the chief architect of the Common Core standards is now the head of the College Board (the people who bring us the SATs).
Not only does this approach make any text frustrating and dull, it means that the children who succeed have gotten their knowledge, and confidence, outside school. Rather than engaging all children, whatever their previous knowledge, with interesting content, so that they are rewarded by learning itself, school becomes a filter, a sort of nine-month standardized test.
And writing skill, as measured by standardized tests, is all about grammar and vocabulary, not about persuasiveness, clarity, or even credibility. 

This is why history is not emphasized in public schools today – and why it must be taught, and taught well, if we want our kids to graduate as competent, knowledgeable, curious young adults.