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We Need to Develop New Ways to Teach Students History

Psychologists define craziness as the tendency to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. So take the following history test and find out if your ideas about our kids and what they know about history are crazy or not.

Identify the source of this quotation:

"Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride."

Does this statement come from:

(a) A 1987 National Assessment, after which testers argued that low scores doom youth to"ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship and parenthood."

(b) Results of a 1976 test of American youth, published under the banner,"Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited."

(c) Reports of a 1942 history exam that prompted Columbia historian Allan Nevins to write that high school students are"all too ignorant of American history."

(d) None of the above.

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.

The quotation comes from a report of a 1917 test of 668 Texas students. Less than 10 percent of school-age children attended high school in 1917; today, enrollments are nearly universal. The whole world has turned on its head during the last century but one thing has stayed the same: Young people remain woefully ignorant about history.

Guess what? Historians are ignorant too, especially when we equate historical knowledge with the"Jeopardy" Daily Double. I know because I presented a series of short-answer questions to a group of professional historians. Those specializing in American history did just fine. But those with specialties in medieval, European and African history failed miserably when confronted by items about Fort Ticonderoga, the Olive Branch Petition, or the Quebec Act -- all taken from a typical textbook.

According to the testers, the results from the recent National Assessment in History, like scores from earlier tests, show that young people are"abysmally ignorant" of their own history. Invoking the tragedy of last September, historian Diane Ravitch hitched her worries about our future to the idea that our nation's strength is endangered by youth who do poorly on such tests. But if she were correct, we would have gone down the tubes in 1917!

There is a huge difference between saying"Kids don't know the history we want them to know" and saying"Kids don't know history at all." Historical knowledge burrows itself into our cultural pores even if young people can't marshal it when faced by a multiple choice test. If we weren't such hypocrites (or maybe if we were better historians) we'd have to admit that today's students follow in our own footsteps.

For too long we've fantasized that by rewriting textbooks we could change how history is learned. The problem, however, is not the content of textbooks but the very idea of them. No human mind could retain the information crammed into these books in 1917, and it can do no better now.

But facts are important, so we'd better get used to this one: Today's youths get their history from the screen. From MTV clips to C-SPAN coverage, from 24-hour programming on the History Channel to the design-your-own-history curriculum of the Internet, the past comes at today's teens from every quarter. A lot of this stuff may be junk, but it's junk that influences them more than any weighty work of history.

Recently I asked a group of teens what they knew about the Vietnam War. Not one made reference to a history book or, for that matter, to anything learned in school. But over half talked at length about the movie"Forrest Gump."

Rather than pretending that we can do away with popular culture, let's try a radically different tack. Let's place accurate history on film at the center of the history curriculum. Let's teach kids how they're being seduced, manipulated and bamboozled by a celluloid version of the past that, when approached uncritically, dooms them to an Oliver Stone Age.

We'll need new kinds of resources to supplement this approach. Not our current one-stop, Plato-to-NATO textbooks, but shorter, more focused texts, filled with original documents and carefully assembled to confront, challenge and complicate the reigning Gumpian histories. We won't be able to touch on every fact of American history in this new curriculum -- maybe Fort Ticonderoga and the Quebec Act will have to wait until college -- but what we do teach we'll be able to teach in greater depth. Not only will kids retain more history this way but if we do our job as educators, they'll be more thoughtful about it as well.

The alternative is to keep on doing what we've been doing all along. When the predictable headline appears after the next history exam, we might just want to reconsider whether it's our kids who are at fault. Maybe we're the nutty ones, who keep doing the same thing but expecting a different result.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.