Roundup: Talking About HistoryFollow RU: Talking About History on RSS and Twitter
This is where we excerpt articles about history that appear in the media. Among the subjects included on this page are: anniversaries of historical events, legacies of presidents, cutting-edge research, and historical disputes.
Richard Rothstein, research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, in the Journal of American History (subscribers only) (March 2004):
Americans have never considered learning history to be an end in itself. Instruction about history and the development of political institutions (civics) has always been justified as an exercise that would produce better citizens, however blandly defined. Yet educators have never successfully explained how the content of history or civics curricula promotes the stated goal of good citizenship. Even when educators duck this problem of means and ends and treat history and civics instruction as an end in itself, they have no realistic expectations of what students should learn. Most definitions of student proficiency are corrupted by nostalgia for alleged past achievement levels that never existed.
What is more, educators cannot make up their minds about whether history instruction (and hence its assessment) should be"broad" or"deep." This is also true in other fields (it has become commonplace for experts to say, for example, that mathematics curricula are"a mile wide and an inch deep" and are thus flawed), but the problem is compounded in history because ideological and political disputes distort pedagogy. All partisans insist that they want both depth and breadth, but in practice the Left prefers depth and the Right prefers breadth. Since nobody is satisfied by assessments that inevitably take sides in this dispute, these conflicts cannot be resolved by educators alone. ...
Although there is no evidence that history knowledge leads to better or more loyal citizenship, the relationship seems plausible. But there are reasons to be cautious. Consider that white students get higher scores on tests of history than black students. But black students are more than four times as likely to discuss the national news with their parents as white students are. Which is a better measure of the effectiveness of instruction: test scores or an inclination to discuss public affairs outside the classroom?
Further, good citizenship and loyalty are, to some extent, not objective characteristics but attributes defined by partisan objectives. Blacks, who score lower on tests of history knowledge than whites, tend to vote for more liberal candidates than do whites. Children from affluent families score higher on tests of history than do children from working-class families. But upper-income voters tend to be more socially liberal and economically conservative than working-class voters. Are the wealthy better citizens? Participation and political values are related. It is inconceivable that educators can promote the former while maintaining neutrality about the latter....
In any nation—the United States is no exception—political extremists may know more history and achieve higher test scores than a random sample of their age peers."We do not have all the answers to this complex phenomenon," the Shanker Institute concluded,"and we may never have." Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been prominent in urging more study of history so that young people will"appreciate how greatly fortunate we are to live in freedom" and, by implication, be more supportive of the response of George W. Bush's adminstration to the terrorist attacks. Many of us who are highly educated share Mrs. Cheney's conceit that if only young people had more historical insight, they would share our political viewpoints. But she could be more cautious—sophistication sometimes evolves into cynicism. At any rate, the study of history needs better than patriotic justification.
In sum, there is no agreement among educators about what good citizenship means, and no satisfactory record of measuring how any definition of citizenship is affected by history or civics instruction. Instead we have chosen to evaluate only the achievement of short-term goals that may have little relation to the outcomes we claim truly to want.
Sam Wineburg, professor of education at Stanford, in the Journal of American History (subscribers only) (March 2004):
Results from the 1987, 1994, and 2001 administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress ( NAEP , known informally as the"Nation's Report Card") have shown little deviation from earlier trends. In the wake of the 2001 test came the same stale headlines ("Kids Get 'Abysmal' Grade in History: High School Seniors Don't Know Basics," USA Today ); the same refrains of cultural decline ("a nation of historical nitwits," wagged the Greensboro [North Carolina] News and Record ); the same holier-than-thou indictments of today's youth ("dumb as rocks," hissed the Weekly Standard ); and the same boy-who-cried-wolf predictions of impending doom ("when the United States is at war and under terrorist threat," young people's lack of knowledge is particularly dangerous). Scores on the 2001 test, after a decade of the"standards movement," were virtually identical to their predecessors. Six in ten seniors"lack even a basic knowledge of American history," wrote the Washington Post , results that NAEP officials castigated as"awful,""unacceptable," and"abysmal.""The questions that stumped so many students," lamented Secretary of Education Rod Paige,"involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy, our growth as a nation, and our role in the world." As for the efficacy of standards in the states that adopted them, the test yielded no differences between students of teachers who reported adhering to standards and those who did not. Remarked a befuddled Paige,"I don't have any explanation for that at all." ...
Pointing to the latest NAEP results, the Albert Shanker Institute, sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, claimed in a blue-ribbon report,"Education for Democracy," that"something has gone awry.... We now have convincing evidence that our students are woefully ignorant of who we are as Americans," indifferent to"the common good," and"disconnected from American history." ...
Historical memory shows an especial plasticity when it turns to assessing young people's character and capability. The same Diane Ravitch, educational historian and member of the NAEP governing board, who in May 2002 expressed alarm that students"know so little about their nation's history" and possess"so little capacity to reflect on its meaning" did a one-eighty eleven months later when rallying Congress for funds in history education:
Although it is customary for people of a certain age to complain about the inadequacies of the younger generation, such complaints ring hollow today.... What we have learned in these past few weeks is that this younger generation, as represented on the battlefields of Iraq, may well be our finest generation.
The phrase"our finest generation" of course echoes the journalist Tom Brokaw's characterization of the men and women who fought in World War II as the"greatest generation." Those were the college students who in 1943 abandoned the safety of the quadrangle for the hazards of the beachhead. Yet only in our contemporary mirror do they look"great." Back then, grown-ups dismissed them as knuckleheads, even questioning their ability to fight. Writing in the New York Times Magazine in May 1942, a fretful Allan Nevins wondered whether a historically illiterate fighting force might be a national liability."We cannot understand what we are fighting for unless we know how our principles developed." If"knowing our principles" means scoring well on objective tests, we might want to update that thesis.
A sober look at a century of history testing provides no evidence for the"gradual disintegration of cultural memory" or a" growing historical ignorance." The only thing growing seems to be our amnesia of past ignorance. If anything, test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover—and rediscover—their"shameful" ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention. Appeals to it are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a claim that can be anchored in the documentary record.