Unseasonable Thoughts On Learning and Teaching American History II
Bill Long 7/24/06
Once we begin to see that the giving and reporting of surveys showing startling ignorance that students have of American history is a game to get money for the people who give the surveys and their friends, we are ready to pass to the more serious attempt at dealing with historical knowledge in schools: state teaching standards. These standards are usually developed over a several-month period with the help of outside consultants, and they often follow a rather sophisticated process of input, discussion, voting and adoption. In addition, standards are worthless, so the argument goes, without tools to measure how well a student knows what the standards says s/he ought to know. Thus, we not only have a cottage industry here for those who think in terms of bureaucracy and systems of knowledge, but a skyscraper industry.
California is regarded by those who claim knowledge in this area as having some of the best standards in American history education. Indeed, they are, at first glance, impressive in their depth and articulation. Standards differ from surveys in that they are not "fact-driven," but are rather more interested in "interpretations" or "frameworks of knowledge." Let me illustrate this by giving standard # 1 in the current California Grade 11 History-Social Science Content Standards.
11.1 Students analyze the significant events in the founding of the nation and its attempts to realize the philosophy of government described in the Declaration of Independence.
1 Describe the Enlightenment and the rise of democratic ideas as the context in which the nation was founded.
2 Analyze the ideological origins of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers' philosophy of divinely bestowed unalienable natural rights, the debates on the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and the addition of the Bill of Rights.
3 Understand the history of the Constitution after 1787 with emphasis on federal versus state authority and growing democratization.
4 Examine the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction and of the industrial revolution, including demographic shifts and the emergence in the late nineteenth century of the United States as a world power.
Notice how these standards are articulated. Students are to "analyze" significant events; they are to understand the "philosophy" of the Declaration of Independence; they are to know about the "debates on the drafting and ratification" of the Constitution; they are to understand not just the prehistory but the post-history of the Constitution; they are to combine this knowledge with knowledge of the "effects" of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This is a tall order, indeed, but one that obviously has its appeal. The emphasis is not on mastery of factual data but rather on building knowledge "in context" and knowledge which is connected to a larger national story. One can see immediately why most people embrace California's articulation as among the most sophisticated in the country. But let's look a little closer at the first few statements.
Parsing a Standard
The first words are: "Students analyze the significant events..." No doubt this is a worthy goal. But here is where my questions begin. What is a significant event and who says? The goal seems to be to understand the Declaration of Independence, so arguably what is at issue here are events leading to the writing of that document. That does import a sense of historical inevitability to it (i.e., we know what the significant event is-the Declaration--and so we build backwards to try to find traces of the Declaration foreshadowed or prepared for in earlier documents), which is one of the traits that historians are gradually realizing today is one they need to learn how to set aside. So, the tone of the first standard is to teach in a method that is no longer reputable, even among historians who are interested in "standards." It is sort of like studying the Christian Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) for its adumbrations of Christ. This method is only followed in a very few of the more Evangelical or Fundamentalist denominations.
But, let's presume that I have zealously overread the standard and all it is meant to imply in the first four or five words is that the Declaration of Independence should be placed in its historical "context." Who could argue with that? But, once you begin to get to work, you see how the notion of "context" falls completely apart. That is, "context" is a good word when you don't know what you are talking about, but when you start to look at the records themselves, you don't do it by trying to look at "context"; you do it by trying simply to understand the language of people sometime and someplace before the Declaration was penned.
But, where do you start? And, with whom do you start? It seems to me that this is so controversial that it would bring the discussion screeching to a halt right here. What if I wanted to begin my study of the "precursors" to the Declaration in 1630? What if I rejected the notion of "precursors" as partaking too much of the notion of historical ineluctability? What if I thought that the best way to study American history was just to plunk someone down in some place in the 1720s, find a text or two, and begin trying to decipher 18th century handwriting? Why isn't that a more genuine expression of what historians actually do and ought to do than some kind of task to try to show the events leading to the writing of the Declaration of Independence?
Well, let's say that someone else wanted to look at some of the ideological underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence, and so they got the brilliant idea that students ought to know about Montesquieu's work. The smartest students in American history these days have heard about Montesquieu, but that is all. But let us say that the intrepid teacher wants us really to understsand Montesquieu. Let's assume that the instructor doesn't have time to teach everyone French, though that would be a very good thing. As a matter of fact, one might argue whether a thorough knowledge of French is really a prerequisite to do what the first few words of the first standard is saying. In any case, let's assumet that you just read him in English. I could imagine spending months on him, but I think you only have a matter of a day or two to do so.
I hope you see where this is going. You cannot possibly do justice even to the first five words of the standard in several months, much less have the first standard only be the "background" of what you are trying to "cover." Because of this, you will be forced to teach history in a whirlwind fashion, which almost inevitably means that history becomes an eye-glazing recitation of facts, names and events (with an occasional interpretation thrown in) that is then "tested" in some form. It exhausts me just thinking about it. In short, I would claim that following standards leads to nothing but frustration because you really don't understand the nature of historical knowledge when you are doing that.
I would propose, in contrast, that the goal of historical education be to show us the uncertainty of our knowledge and the limited nature of our inquiry. The next essay discusses this.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long