The way history is taught in U.S. high schools should be completely overhauled. For the vast majority of students, history is presented as a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam. Their other core subjects—English, science, and math—almost always pull in students who love reading or enjoy the intricate pleasures of numbers and theories. However, it is the rare student who finds anything edifying or relevant about history as it is taught in our classrooms today.
My perspective is unusual. I tutor New York City students in a poor area of Brooklyn who, in spite of passing their other state-mandated regents’ exams in core subjects, have repeatedly failed their history exams and, therefore, cannot receive a high school diploma.
Take a student I’ll call Tony, for example. He’s 20 years old with a 4-year-old son. He’s covered in tattoos: The two most visible are on his neck and left hand. They both spell the name of his son. He sports two long silky black braids, is very skinny, and wears pants that hang around mid-thigh. I don’t know whether his drooping pants are a fashion statement or the result of his inability to afford a belt small enough to hold them up. Tony is desperate to pass this history exam because without a high school diploma, he will count himself lucky if he continues to be offered occasional work as a stock boy.
What astonishes me about Tony, as it does about any of my students, is how little he knows about the world. The five or six blocks he travels between his home, school, and work circumscribe his entire life. At this point, there is no way Tony can pass his regents’ exam unless I “teach to the test"; in other words, we work our way through old exams, one multiple-choice question after another.
[History] is relevant to the lives of every student, but none more than our most disadvantaged."
Interestingly, it’s not boring for either of us. When we first started to study together, Tony, like all my students, had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled since we separated from England more than two centuries ago.
He knew the name Abraham Lincoln, but drew a blank when I asked him which war Lincoln was associated with. He was unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Segregation and civil rights were not concepts he could articulate. He goes to a segregated school in Brooklyn, which is all black and Latino. He doesn’t question this because it’s all he has ever known.
Tony lives with his mother, two sisters (one of whom is disabled), and his son. He doesn’t own a computer, and although he had a cellphone when we first started working together, it has since been disconnected. Tony’s goal to make a better life for his son is why I find tutoring him, and young people like him, so rewarding.
Our discussion of George Washington led Tony to ask, “How can a person become president?” This led to a productive 15-minute discussion about the path to the presidency, the meaning of democracy and majority rule, and the importance of registering to vote. When our discussion of U.S. Supreme Court cases turned to Roe v. Wade, he asked in horror, “You mean my girlfriend could have had an abortion without telling me?” But it also got him thinking about federal legislation and how we pass laws.
When I explained that the word “tariff” was equivalent to “tax"—what his employer takes from his paycheck—he asked where the money goes. This prompted a conversation in which I was able to introduce him to the word “infrastructure.” I explained that taxes finance the building of roads and telecommunication systems, as well as our other civic needs, including schools and hospitals. In this same discussion, he also learned that because he earns so little, he can file to have the money that’s been withheld from his paycheck returned.
History is a study of struggles, setbacks, and victories. While Tony knew that the president is a black man, he became interested in learning the route Barack Obama took to achieve that remarkable stature. Tony’s love for his son and his core opposition to abortion made him think hard about Roe v. Wade, something I know he hadn’t given much thought to before. And the word “tariff,” which once sounded “old fashioned” to him, took on a new significance when he understood its meaning and context.
History is not boring. More important, it is relevant to the lives of every student, but none more than our most disadvantaged. Rather than teaching it as a series of eye-glazing events, it should be presented in a way that affords students the opportunity to delve in; question; and, above all, see in history’s unfolding, how we, the people, have traveled from there to here; and how that journey is relevant to all of us.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Let’s Overhaul How We Teach History