The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Still don’t know much about history

By David Bernstein

When I took high school history in the early 1980s, the job of the history teacher was to provide a steady stream of facts, and the job of the student was to commit those facts to memory. Even though I was deeply interested in public affairs, I found both American and World history boring and irrelevant. But later in life, I came to realize, like so many others, that it was impossible to understand modern politics and the interplay of ideas without some grounding in the subject.

When my son reached middle school, I was curious if teaching history had changed. At first, I was pleasantly surprised. In eighth grade, he had a charismatic teacher who eschewed the memorization curriculum in favor of interesting projects and interactive lesson plans that brought historical ideas to life. But, unfortunately, that year turned out to be an exception. Since then, it’s been mostly one big lesson in historic trivia.

Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher, district superintendent and professor at Stanford, cited a study in which “97 percent of students in history courses reported that their teachers lectured some of the time, they memorized information (83 percent), and used the textbook weekly (89 percent).” Only 10-15 percent of teachers, he estimated, incorporated “student-centered techniques” into their teaching.

Recently my son was studying for a test on the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Most of the study sheet was devoted to inculcating key historical figures, such as Phillip II, Louis XIV, and Henry IV. This was a defining period in Western civilization, when domination of the Catholic Church gave way to other forms of Christianity and eventually to a more liberal system of states with greater individual freedom. It’s impossible to understand America and the West, let alone the quest for democracy in the developing world, without some grasp of this explosive transition in Europe.

While these key ideas are not missing from the history curriculum and text book, they are obscured in a morass of factoids. And although the class utilizes some experiential exercises and projects—to be sure, it’s marginally better than the instruction I received in the 1980s–these methods are mostly overwhelmed by the traditional pedagogy.

I asked a boy in our neighborhood—an outstanding student who had the same class with the same teacher the previous year–if he could name the various European leaders of that time. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t. Such material is designed to be forgotten. More troubling, he couldn’t describe the Reformation period either. Why should he? The class devoted scarcely more time to it than Peter II. If, a year after taking the class, a student cannot tell you if the lessons of the Reformation in Europe apply to the changes sweeping through the Middle East referred to as the “Arab Spring,” she really hasn’t comprehended the Reformation.

Many history teachers seem to think that they have to impart every last historical nugget, lest students are left woefully ill-equipped to function in a democratic society. That they are teaching doesn’t mean students are learning. How many of you could describe the difference between two British monarchs, Charles I and Charles II? Such figures only become potentially interesting after you understand the historical context in which they lived and led. Tenth grade is not the last chance students will ever have to learn about British kings; they can always learn more later, and some might even choose to do so if inspired by the teaching and the subject matter.

In today’s history class, the difference between a bad student and a good student is that the bad student won’t remember the information for the test, and the good student won’t remember it in three months.

In order to guard against the tendency to teach trivia, the first law of history class ought to be all open book tests all the time. If the book has to be closed, then students won’t remember the material afterwards. Better yet, teachers should skip the test altogether and do interesting projects and hold lots of interactive discussions about the big ideas. You don’t have to worry that their memories will atrophy; such teaching still requires that students use their memories, but for the important stuff rather than the minutiae.  A more experiential approach would also instill stronger critical thinking skills and generate greater interest in the subject matter.

With all the research on learning and human memory, we should be appalled that schools are still stuck on the precise reign of King Charles II. Who will take history class in a new direction?

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