Educators Urged to Bring History Alive
David McCullough asked historians and history educators to imagine
the scene here 225 years ago, as American troops marched into this
town, bloodied but triumphant after the Battle of Saratoga. The
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman and John Adams has been
acclaimed for his skill in bringing history to life for his
Mr. McCullough, speaking before some 600 attendees of the National Council for History Education's annual conference this month, shared some of the struggles and heroics of the early patriots that he uncovered in researching his upcoming book, 1776. The 69-year-old author said the drama of the pivotal battle of the Revolutionary War, held here in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, illustrates how teachers can tap their passion for the past, and the rich body of detail that has been gathered on central figures and events, to engage students in a more substantive study of history.
Borrowing from Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. McCullough urged teachers to "embody ghosts, to put flesh and blood on dry bones, to make dead men living before our eyes," to use narrative and literary forms to help students understand the past.
"For we who educate the young, our part has never been more important," Mr. McCullough said. "The fact that we are raising these young people who know so little history is a disgrace."
Other presenters and participants at the Oct. 3-5 event also lamented what they see as a decline in students' knowledge and appreciation of history, as indicated in several surveys in recent years. Several criticized a curriculum laden with disconnected facts and little context, a tendency to hire teachers who have undertaken limited formal study of the subject, and tests that advance only a shallow approach to history.
Paul A. Gagnon, a senior research associate at Boston University's Center for School Improvement, has undertaken an extensive study of standards in the subject in 48 states. (Iowa and Rhode Island do not have such guidelines.)
"Generally speaking, pretty much all of the state standards documents are in practice unteachable in the time that teachers have to teach history," he said. "They are either overstuffed, or they are too vague and general."
The NCHE board member said that some state standards have up to 250 specific topics that would take at least a day each to cover. The important ones, he said, could take up to a week. The others, Mr. Gagnon said, call for enormous sweeping topics, such as the economic, social, and political changes in the Middle Ages.
"Overall, we are still in the early stages of setting standards that can actually be taught and that can be tested in fair and useful ways," he contended.
Mr. Gagnon suggested, instead, that states outline a "civic core" that would contain only about half the current content—inclusive of key historical figures, events, documents, and political forces—leaving more time for teachers and students to explore topics relevant to their state or region.
The situation, however, is not hopeless, he said, because it takes time to establish high quality academic guidelines.
Despite the criticism of the current state of history education, many educators and scholars were optimistic about current efforts to give history a boost in schools. They pointed to the recent expansion of the federal "Teaching American History" grant program, which was given $100 million in fiscal 2002, double that of the previous year. For fiscal 2003, however, the Bush administration has requested just $50 million for the program.
Attendees also cheered an initiative announced last month by President Bush to improve history education. ("Public Says Teach Good and Bad of History," Sept. 25, 2002.)
The National Archives unveiled a Web site in recent weeks to support the president's initiative. The site—www.ourdocuments.gov—will allow students and teachers to view original speeches, treaties, U.S. Supreme Court cases, constitutional amendments, and other historical documents.
—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Vol. 22, Issue 7, Page 7Published in Print: October 16, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook