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Should We Be Alarmed by the Results of the Latest U.S. History Test? In Answer to Diane Ravitch

In a recent piece for History News Network, Diane Ravitch bemoans the fate of American education and civilization, as the test scores in United States history for seniors taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress have failed to improve since 1994. Many of us in the classroom give less weight than Ravitch to the tyranny of standardized testing, which often sheds more light on what students do not know rather than acknowledging the insights which they have attained. Attention to larger questions regarding the American experience may become obscured in testing’s focus upon the details, failing to give our young people enough credit.

Nevertheless, Ravitch has several good suggestions regarding reform of the nation’s history teaching. She observes that many history teachers have been trained in the social sciences and are attempting to teach history while having only completed a few courses in the subject area. Also there is a tendency for school administrators to assume that anyone can teach history. This was certainly my own experience in the schools where I was taught history by coaches whose jobs were dependent upon their won-loss records rather than any expertise in the study of history. Accordingly, I would applaud Ravitch’s call for more qualified history education in the schools. But in this appeal, she tends to omit one major point; we often get the education which we pay for. In fact, in light of how society rewards teaching both in monetary terms as well as prestige, it is amazing how many dedicated teachers we do have.

President Bush’s campaign to leave no child behind relies heavily on standardized testing, while neglecting the type of Marshall Plan funding which would attract the best and brightest of college students to teaching as a career. The Bush administration is adamant in asserting that education is one of the nation’s top priorities. But when it comes to the sport cliché of show me the money, politicians are a little less forthcoming. There is little political debate or dissent when it comes to increased appropriations for the military or national defense. If education is such a priority, why is it also not essential for the nation’s long term security?

While Ravitch fails to address the economics of attracting better teachers, she does believe that better history education is necessary for America’s future and to refute “the lies and absurd historical analogies that have filled the airwaves since September 11.” What does Ravitch mean by this statement? Her ideological assumptions are more apparent in piece which she wrote for Education Week shortly after the events of September 11 and was reprinted by History Matters, the newsletter for the National Council for History Education. In her article, Ravitch expresses alarm that educators responded to the terrorist attacks by advocating greater teaching of tolerance and multiculturalism. She insists that such teaching strategies will promote divisions within America by ignoring our commonalities. In her Education Week piece, Ravitch writes, “What we should know is the importance of teaching our children about democracy, freedom, human rights, the principle that every person is equal before the law and the value of the individual.” Ravitch, of course, is on target in her identification of crucial concerns for young people as citizens of a democratic society.

However, Ravitch assumes that history education will and should serve certain ideological ends. She believes that history instruction should be enlisted in the war on terrorism, instilling patriotism under the banner of united we stand, divided we fall. Thus, the noted educator argues that only the commonalities of the American experience should be emphasized in a grand master narrative which celebrates the story of American freedom and progress, culminating in victory over the forces of Soviet totalitarianism in the Cold War. Ravitch, echoing the sentiments of President Bush, asserts that terrorists have attacked America because “they” envy our freedom and prosperity. She is alarmed that teachers might even raise questions as to why some people in the world find the United States and its policies so abhorrent. Ravitch does not seem to recognize that raising such concerns is not the same as endorsing the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the terrorists.

In Ravitch’s American history curriculum, there appears to be little room for critical thinking. Nor does she seem to have much faith in the young people of this nation. Ravitch seems to believe that if students were encouraged to engage in a discourse on the meaning of the American experience for all its citizens, they might reach the “wrong” conclusions. Good teaching is not about indoctrination, but rather focuses upon raising questions and challenging preconceived ideas. However, it is often difficult to evaluate such teaching with standardized testing.

Ravitch would apparently have us de-emphasize the role played by race, gender, and class in American history. An examination of these concepts suggests the history of this country is filled with ambiguity and paradox. How is it possible that a slaveholder such as Thomas Jefferson could pen the inspiring dream of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence. There is, indeed, much to celebrate in the American past, but the troubling ideas of race, gender, and class indicate that there exists a considerable gap between the American promise and reality. I have faith that our students are capable of developing a healthy respect for the roles played by ambiguity and paradox in human motivation and historical causation. It is this type of sophisticated thinking which our children need as they take their place as members of the world community and not just American citizens.

For the world is a more complex place than Ravitch’s rhetoric would have us believe. Yes, the Soviet Union was defeated in the Cold War, but the American “victory” was purchased at a high price. In implementing the policy of containment, the United States often followed the Truman Doctrine, supplying military assistance to any regime resisting alleged communist subversion. Accordingly, the United States often ended up providing arms for anticommunist dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia (where some estimates suggest that the Indonesian government may have slaughtered as many as three million opponents accused of communist sympathies), the Somoza family in Nicaragua, and Mobutu in the Congo. The Cold War legacy also contributed to the political instability of Afghanistan with tragic results for both Americans and Afghans.

Students also need to ponder their economic responsibilities as world citizens, for Americans consume more than their fair share of finite global resources. Raising questions regarding such issues will not, as Ravitch suggests, hinder our children from being able to detect “lies” about America. The world is a multi-faceted place, and our young people are quite capable of engaging in a vigorous debate as to the place of the United States within the world community. As we enter into what is apparently an open-ended commitment to the war on terrorism, students in the schools should be encouraged to ask the tough questions. Our long term security depends upon citizens willing to assert their civil liberties and embark upon a democratic dialogue regarding America’s past and future.

Ravitch is appalled by low test scores and concerned that because students lack a detailed knowledge of the American past, they will be susceptible to demagogues who would question the unfolding of the American dream. Unfortunately, many of our disadvantaged youth lack the educational resources and qualified teachers which would allow them to achieve the high standardized test scores so valued by Ravitch. On the other hand, they may have a first hand knowledge of the role played by race, gender, and class in the American experience which no standardized assessment may ever be able to measure.