To the Editor:
Re: Education Week’s recent article on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s report card on the teaching of history in the different states (“Majority of States Get Poor Grades on History Standards,” Feb. 23, 2011). In the article, Chester E. Finn Jr. defends the institute’s concern for “names, dates, and events” at the expense of in-depth understanding by saying: “You have to get the bricks before you can get the mortar.” Finn should know better. A teacher builds learning by using bricks and mortar at the same time, from the very start.
Unless names and dates are connected to overarching themes and conceptual frameworks from the get-go, they are easily forgotten because there are no vital connections among them. They remain inert. Information must become knowledge before there can be understanding.
The Fordham Institute report criticizes Texas’s thematic history curriculum as a “politicized distortion of history.” But, of course, without themes, without a narrative story, there is no history, only a collection of factoids. Historians create narratives of the past, all of which require identifying connections among and determining the significance of people and events. They require someone’s perspective to create them, and the narrative becomes thematic. Many state and school districts, believing this to be true, have created engaging curricula centered around key thematic concepts and ideas.
Finn and the Fordham Institute would take us back to an earlier time before we really understood how children learn and how history is told. Unfortunately, then, their report card is not helpful.
James O. Lee
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Report Card Misses Need for Narratives