If we are serious about ending the culture wars, strengthening education, and teaching a new generation of citizens that they are part of something larger than themselves, we need to urge the U.S. Senate to continue to fund the Teaching American History, or TAH, grants program.
At the moment, the House of Representatives has already targeted the program for elimination. But Congress has yet to resolve its fiscal year 2011 funding bill. In other words, according to Lee White, the executive director of the Washington-based National Coalition for History, it is still possible to save these grants if we are willing to write our United States senators and urge them to do something about preserving this vital program.
Since 2002, the TAH program has allocated nearly $1 billion in federal funds to school districts for the purpose of improving the teaching of American history. The program was the brainchild of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who used his influence in Congress to make sure that it was funded. Since then it has received bipartisan support and, by all indicators, it has been a great success. (“History, Civics Education Part of Sen. Byrd’s Legacy,” July 14, 2010.)
As a historian who has worked with several districts that have received TAH grants, I can attest to the program’s effectiveness. Districts partner with area colleges, historical societies, or institutes such as Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, in New York City, to prepare grant proposals that, if accepted, could infuse the districts with $1 million grants designed explicitly for teacher training in American history.
Grant recipients use the money to develop workshops, seminars, and field trips for teachers of American history. Some hire noted historians from around the country to bring American history content and history-related pedagogy expertise to teachers who are desperately in need of professional development. The focus is on learning how to make the past come alive for students through the use of primary sources—documents written during the time period under consideration.
In 2008, I had the privilege, as a historian, of spending three days with high school history teachers from Bledsoe County, Tenn. Bledsoe County is not an easy place to get to. After flying into Chattanooga, I rented a car and drove about an hour or so into the Appalachian Mountains. The town had no hotels and only a few small restaurants. I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast, which seemed to be little more than the home of a local woman with a few spare bedrooms in her house. This place was remote.
Yet the teachers I encountered in Bledsoe County were eager to learn. They were inspiring. Not only were they fully engaged with the content I taught them, but it was clear that they were also willing to work together as a community of teacher-educators who would be meeting with one another for several years to improve American history education in the their region.
I could share similar stories from rural northeast Louisiana; Raleigh, N.C.; and inner-city Minneapolis and Milwaukee, to name a few.
Why is it so important that we make the improvement of American history teaching such a high priority?
First, history offers a way of thinking about the world and one’s place within it that is unlike any other discipline. When taught well, it requires students to see themselves as part of something larger than the present moment in which they live.
Learning American history helps produce citizens not by making them memorize dates and facts, but by teaching them that they, as the next generation of American leadership, have a responsibility to care for the nation in the way that others have done before them. The writer Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
When students encounter the past, they learn virtues such as empathy for those who are different. They learn humility as they see themselves as part of a national past that has played out through time. Aren’t these at least some of the virtues that we want the next generation of Americans to possess?
We live, of course, in difficult economic times. Many of the critiques of excessive government spending have been legitimate. Reform-minded citizens have appealed to American history—the Founding Fathers, the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party—to promote their agenda. (Didn’t the current Congress begin its new session with a reading of the U.S. Constitution?) I wonder if the next generation can continue to be such active citizens without a thorough knowledge of our past. Let’s do something about this.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week