Monday, May 09, 2005

On the teaching of History

The previous post brought up a great point which I'd like to elaborate on since it has to do with the subject of a number of recent articles and books (for example, here, here and here - disclosure note: the second title is my own offering on this subject.) History is one of those school subjects that students find either really engaging or mindnumbingly boring. In most cases, it depends on the expertise and passion of the teacher involved but often enough it's a case of the resources at hand. I'd just like to address one of them - textbooks.

The United States is different than almost every country in that it has no identifiable national history standards. Almost every other country does. Vidal-Naquet's quote from the previous post pointed out that Japan's standards are highly centralized and that France's are not. This is true, but misleading (especially since Japan modeled it's educational system after France's.) France has what's called a "programme national" which means that the Ministry of Education decides on what topics should be taught and then leaves it up to the independent textbook publishers to print the books, which must, of course, follow the programme. It doesn't tell them how to cover the events, only which events or issues to cover and during which years. While this is more centralized than the US, it is not the state-sponsored history (identity) indoctrination of non-democratic societies like Saudi Arabia, Syria and North Korea where the Ministry of Education decides on a curriculum, prints the textbooks themselves, and distributes them to the schools for use, an approach reminiscient of the former Soviet Union.

The US, as I was saying, has no history standards. Americans of all stripes and colors are a bit too suspicious of the federal government to allow it to dictate to them their own history. The left wants a more inclusive, multiculturalist history which emphasizes no single group over another, while the right wants the traditional patriotic rendition complete with the Founding Fathers and Christian message. What ends up in the classroom often depends on where your classroom is located. The content of a history course in Tennessee might sound considerably different than a course in Massachusetts. The textbooks themselves are often a mish-mash of empty authoritative language "so much sound and fury signifying nothing" since publishers must watch what they write in order to not offend potential customers (school boards or adoption committees.) I'll write more on this selection process in the coming days, but I wanted to leave you with one important statistic:

In 2001, 57% of seniors scored below basic in US History. In no other subject area do students score so low.

What role do textbooks play is an important question, especially when you consider that in a survey that asked high school students to name the ultimate authority in the history classroom, the overwhelming winner was the textbook. 80-90% of classroom work is based on textbooks according to certain shadow studies published by the NEA (note: I can't find the specific link presently, but when I do find it I'll update the post).

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