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Opinion
Social Studies Commentary

Don’t Know Much About History. Why Not?

By Johnathan Zimmerman — June 19, 2002 3 min read
Across the country, more than half of high school history students are taught by instructors who lack a major or minor in the subject.

Sixteen years ago, as a new high school social studies teacher in Vermont, I taught a lesson on the Progressive movement in United States history. I filled up the blackboard with reform measures from that era—the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Federal Reserve Act, and so on. The students dutifully copied these items, readying themselves for the inevitable quiz at the end of the week.

But one student refused. “Why should we memorize a bunch of names and dates?” he asked, boldly shutting his notebook. “We’re going to forget about the Progressives, anyway!”

He was an insolent braggart, I thought, challenging the authority of a novice teacher. But he was also correct.

In May, federal officials released the results of the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. history. (“U.S. History Again Stumps Senior Class,” May 15, 2002.) On a multiple-choice question, just 36 percent of high school seniors properly identified the Progressive movement as “a broad-based reform movement that tried to reduce abuses that had come with modernization and industrialization.”

Even worse, only 30 percent of seniors correctly recognized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact as “military organizations made up of, respectively, the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies.” Overall, a mere 43 percent of seniors demonstrated what NAEP called “basic knowledge” of American history.

Why? The question returns us to the classroom, where too many teachers still lack this same basic knowledge. When I started work in Vermont, for example, I had taken only three or four history courses. Across the country, more than half of high school history students are taught by instructors who lack a major or minor in the subject.

Such teachers can easily crowd young minds with mundane facts, as I did many years ago. But they cannot provide a context for this information, so our students quickly forget it—if they learn it at all.

Teachers will not engage in the discussions necessary to give meaning and relevance to historical facts unless they have been rigorously prepared in their discipline.

Today, when I teach about the Progressives, I begin not with answers but with questions: Who were the Progressives? What did they mean by “progress,” anyway? Who benefited from their reforms? Who did not?

I also ask questions about the present, so that students think about its connection to the past. How does the United States regulate industry today? Who supports such regulation? Who opposes it? And how do their arguments repeat—or refute—the original Progressive impulse?

Students who engage in this type of deliberation will more likely recall the particular details of history, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act or the Federal Reserve Act. More important, though, they will also understand its broader themes—including the nature of Progressivism itself.

Critics of national and state testing too blithely presume that a required body of “facts” will inhibit classroom “inquiry.” But facts and inquiry are like Siamese twins: You can’t have one without the other. Students will never master the important facts of history unless they discuss the meaning and significance of this information.

By the same token, of course, teachers will not engage in the needed discussions unless they have been rigorously prepared in their discipline. I did not ask the right questions when I first started teaching, because I did not know enough about history. Let’s make sure that the next generation of instructors knows more than I did.

Jonathan Zimmerman is the director of the History of Education Program at New York University. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which will be published in the fall by Harvard University Press. This essay first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Don’t Know Much About History. Why Not?

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