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Thursday, July 28, 2005


Betsy Newmark of Betsy's Page wrote a long post regarding how American history is taught and why students often aren't interested in the current version:
I'll add in that political correctness has transformed most textbooks into a catalogue of sins of rich white men against everyone else. Why would any kid want to go read about any more of this history? And there's a full curriculum there so teachers are still rushed. Unless, you're willing to throw out some of the tedious curriculum, teachers don't have time to spend on the subjects that will excite kids. I found that middle school kids, both boys and girls, loved learning stories from our nation's military history. My recommendation to any middle school American history teacher is - don't speed through that military history. Start with the French and Indian War and how George Washington as a young man sparked a world war. Tell them about General Wolfe's troops scaling the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham and both Generals Wolfe and Montcalm dying in this climatic battle that changed the history of the continent. Kids will be on the edge of their chairs and then you've gotten them and they're ready to learn the elements of the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
As you might imagine, this is the sort of thing that fries a moonbat soul. One comment:
Let's bring some focus to this: The students in your classes are bored with Social Studies because the curriculum emphasizes topics and activities that either (a) fail to line-up with your perceptions of what's important, or (b) fail to excite you, personally. So, naturally, your students' lack of enthusiasm for Social Studies is a problem of the curriculum and not your ability, commitment and enthusiasm to teach.

What I'm detecting in your post are the musings of a teacher who's burned out and needs to exit from the classroom.
What's so hysterically funny about this is that Betsy's enthusiasm and love of American history and civics is blatantly obvious if you read her blog, and she does also occasionally and modestly write about her students' successes. She's a great teacher; anyone who knows anything about teaching would understand that. But what she has written above goes so against the grain of the politically correct educational groupthink that it must just be like a slap in the face to some people.

When we dumbed down our curriculum it did get less interesting. She's right. And she's also right about the lack of depth and context making it all seem random to the kids.

Kids haven't changed that much really, the environment they grow up in has but they are still the same. When we were that age the Magna Charta just wasn't as exciting as Napoleon and Wellington. It's still not to a 10 year old.

Teaching history to kids is like getting them to eat vegetables, you're going to need a better set up than this is good for you.
Yes, I think you're right.

Betsy's point that the continuity and depth is important makes sense. If the information isn't prevented with a flow so that kids can begin to detect causation, etc, I think it would seem almost irrelevant.

But that moment of mental discovery - the one in which things suddenly fit together and start to make sense - that's a genuine trip. Kids are almost hardwired to look for those moments. They are learning machines. It takes some blindness or an inability to remember being a kid not to realize that.
What makes a great story? An intriguing protagonist, a struggle or conflict. Standard stuff: the three main conflicts within a story are 1) Man vs. man; 2) Man vs. nature; 3) Man vs. himself.

Now history is full of great stories that also happen to be true, and that exemplify these three main struggles that compose the human experience. The classic tradition of history, which we inherited from the Greeks and Romans, believed that we could learn moral and practical lessons from a study of how past people coped with and/or triumphed against the conflicts they were dealt. That kind of history is imminently relevant and endlessly fascinating -- how did Churchill feel when he allowed the bombing of Coventry, sacrificing one city in order to to win the overall war? What was Napolean's biggest error? How would world history have been different if Cortes or Columbus weren't so bold and fearless, or if Moctezuma had been more so?

But since the 1950s, "history" has become the history of groups, which fits with identity politics, as well as the socialist conceit that feels threatened by the notion that individuals can be in control of their own destinies. We can't study great stories about great people anymore, because Marx said that all history is the history of class struggle, that the only important thing is economics. So instead of intriguing figures, we have racial politics. Instead of Churchill making important decisions, we learn about how imperial powers exploited the third-world. Sigh. Yawn. Are we surprised that history has become "eating vegetables?"
Pedro - nicely put. It's sort of history in the passive voice. Stuff just happens.

History in tthe active voice studies the margins and the crux points.
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