Education Opinion

Is Anybody There? Does Anybody Care? Does Anybody See What We See?

By Susan Graham — July 05, 2011 3 min read
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It’s the Fourth of July and the media around the country has been honing in on some bad news:
According to a recent study by National Assessment of Education Progress, only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of high school seniors were proficient on a nationwide test of history knowledge....While those at NAEP say these results are largely unchanged over the last time such student knowledge was assessed in 2006, it remains troubling to see the lack of knowledge as a constant. Which brings us back to the yardstick. History teachers can tell you the difficulties of cramming knowledge of the past into tests featuring a neat multiple choice format.

I thought about that last night as I honored one of my personal Fourth of July traditions. After the Raft Race and the Heritage Festival, and the fried chicken and potato salad and watermelon, and the fireworks down by the river, I watched 1776. For probably the 30th time, I watched the singing and dancing version of the Declaration of Independence.

Out there someone is smirking and thinking, “So this is why our kids don’t know American History! See, we really do need to fire all the bad teachers! Can this teacher possibly be so dumb that she thinks a musical movie is a primary source for information on the First Continental Congress?” No, I’m fully aware of the dramatic licenses that were taken. But here’s the thing, when I first saw those patriots take on skin and blood as they sing and dance across a stage over 30 years ago, I wanted to know more about them. I’ve searched them out and spent time getting to know them---who they were outside of Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, what their lives were like, what became of them, and reading what they wrote. Now I sing along with my laptop on, digging a little deeper and yes, discovering the inaccuracies in the dramatization.

While we may try, history can never completely accurate because it must be told from someone’s perspective. We can really only make educated guesses at the motivations and long term visions of those shadowy figures in history. But it seems important to remember that history was made by real people. Watching 1776 reminds me that becoming a nation didn’t come easy. It wasn’t all high ideals and noble actions. It required compromises--some which were selfless, many that were pragmatic, some that were far less than noble. It reminds me that we all have personal as well as public agendas and it’s difficult to separate the two. It reminds me that what we do today may have unforeseen outcomes and consequences that we can only imagine.

Last night, during my annual on screen reunion with Ben, Tom, John and that tough cookie, Abigail and the mysterious and tragic Martha, I was singing along and tapping my feet with Richard Henry Lee. But once again, I was sobered by the price these patriots paid in their fight for freedom and our responsibility to keep faith with what they did. John Adams warned us

The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

And that made me think about what I read a couple of days before in the blog of Mr. D who is concerned that our current education policies will not prepare the next generation to maintain the freedom that our forefathers and foremothers fought to acquire and preserve for us.

They will not understand the meaning of why "all men are created equal." They will not understand the importance and fragility of our "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They will not be able to participate in a government that is "instituted among men," nor will they be able to adequately serve as the "consent of the governed."

John Adams said “There are two types of education... One should teach us how to make a living, And the other how to live.”

So Mr. D, who knows his history and how to teach it, is going to Washington July 28 -31 because, like many teachers out there, he believes we need to SAVE OUR SCHOOLS.

With good intentions, people who don’t know much about teaching and learning are making bad decisions about educating our children. I would argue that this may be the result of policymakers who are too far away from the realities of the classroom and as a result they tend to forget that schools places of potential rather than measurable outcomes. Teachers, who look into the faces of children can see what is obscured at a distance. Our schools are teaming with Life. They are the incubators of Liberty. They should be a place where The Pursuit of Happiness occurs.

Whether people recognize it or not, I believe most teachers hold that as their own sacred trust. Lately teachers have tried reason, they’ve tried compromise, and they’ve tried just trying harder. But, with apologies to Mr. Paine, “these are the times that try teacher’s souls,” and since policymakers seem deaf to Common Sense, it may be time to heed the words of Jefferson who said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.