A UGA professor says: “It's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that if history is boring and irrelevant, it’s because it is focused on questions like “In what year was the Constitution written?” and not questions about the meaning of its contents and amendments, the social milieu in which it was written, the history of why it’s been amended, and other interesting historical concerns.”
Photo: VINCENT TULLO/NYT
Photo: VINCENT TULLO/NYT

Opinion: The ‘why’ of history is more compelling than the ‘when’

I recently shared the results of a survey that found most Georgians could not pass the U.S. citizenship test, which asks basic questions about the founding of the nation and the constitution. 

Today, frequent Get Schooled contributor and University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky asks whether a test on dates and other factoids assesses the most critical lessons from history, writing:

I could not have stated the exact date of the constitution’s writing, or the number of amendments there are to the constitution. And I read history almost exclusively. The problem is in the way that knowledge is measured: through picayune questions about information that’s easy to look up, yet that is of little value once located. 

His full essay is below, but as you read it, I would like you to consider these questions: Are there fundamental facts that we ought to expect students to know? Are some facts worth memorizing? Is memorizing itself of value in k-12 education?

Increasingly, schools are embracing project-based learning. I have seen many exciting videos of schools where no one sits in a desk or sometimes even in a classroom. Students are working on projects driven by their own interests and passions. 

A few years back, I saw a documentary on High Tech High, the California school renowned for its project-based approach. Afterward, I searched out reviews about the school from students and was surprised to see a fair amount of concern from graduates about their study skills, including such comments as: 

-I liked the real-world experience that High Tech High provides, but it did not prepare me for college. I would have liked to have more experience with textbook learning and testing skills.

-The teachers care about the students and want them to do well. There are almost no tests so have almost no studying skills.

-At this school there are no textbooks, very few tests, and few writing assignments. When I hear HTH graduates talk about their experiences in college, they struggle a lot in the math department and other classes as well.

-In my time I have built a hovercraft, started a business, self-published two books, and done many more things. The one thing that High Tech High can do better on is math. It is difficult to teach math using projects as math builds on itself. 

Now, some may argue these student comments are more evidence that higher education ought to change and also emphasize hands-on learning and real-life lessons. I am conflicted about this issue because I’m often shocked how little people know about the basic operations of government or recent world history, including an event as monumental and monstrous as the Holocaust.

A startling survey last year found two-thirds of millennials and four out of 10 Americans don't know what Auschwitz was. A third believed fewer than 6 million Jews died. Nor did most Americans know that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected and not a madman who forced his way into power.

With that background, here is Smagorinsky’s essay:

By Peter Smagorinsky

Get Schooled recently ran an essay titled New survey finds Georgians don’t know much about history. Since I read most of what appears in this blog, I took a look to see what the latest crisis in education is all about.

Although my field is English Education, which I teach at UGA after 14 years of teaching high school English in and around Chicago, I read very little literature. Rather, I read history almost exclusively. I’m currently reading an 800+ page book on Mexico, “Mexico: Biography of Power,’’ to help me learn about a nation I often travel to through my affiliation with the University of Guadalajara. 

History helps me to understand how the world has changed over time, and how it has produced the present. It also helps me understand the evolution of societies far beyond my own experience. Some of my literary friends find my interest in history to be unimaginative. But reading a good history volume is an imaginative experience as I envision worlds from the past, characters great and small, and stories too extraordinary to fabricate. 

So, when I saw the headline on this essay, I was immediately interested, because I fully embrace George Santayana’s adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As a skeptic, I also wondered, how does the survey produce the interpretation that the 10.66 million residents of Georgia don’t know much about history? That would be one big boatload of ignorance. On what basis was this conclusion reached?

Georgians, according to the survey, are actually somewhat typical: “Nationally, only four in 10 Americans could pass the test that used civics and history questions from the U.S. citizenship exam, according to a poll by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.” Yikes. A whole nation of ignoramuses. That’s a lot of mistakes to repeat.

The findings, I found, were based on a test of historical factoids. As reported in the essay, “Only 15 percent could correctly note the year the U.S. Constitution was written (1787) and only 25 percent knew how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution (27).” The essay called these findings “disturbing” in the lack of our national ability “to demonstrate a basic understanding of American history.”

I have a confession to make. I could not have stated the exact date of the constitution’s writing, or the number of amendments there are to the constitution. And I read history almost exclusively. The problem is in the way that knowledge is measured: through picayune questions about information that’s easy to look up, yet that is of little value once located. 

Weirdly, Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine takes these findings as evidence that we are teaching history all wrong, focusing on the memorization of dates, events, and citizens, which is what the survey tested. The survey is then used as evidence that we teach history all wrong. 

Levine goes on: “Now [history] is too often made boring and robbed of its capacity to make sense of a chaotic present and inchoate future. Instead, knowledge of American history must serve as an anchor in a time when change assails us, a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring and a vehicle for establishing a common bond when social divisions are deep. This requires a fundamental change in how American history is taught and learned to make it relevant to our students’ lives, captivating, and inclusive to all Americans.”  

It's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that if history is boring and irrelevant, it’s because it is focused on questions like “In what year was the Constitution written?” and not questions about the meaning of its contents and amendments, the social milieu in which it was written, the history of why it’s been amended, and other interesting historical concerns. That a test of people’s memory of obscure facts can in turn be used to say that we need to get away from the memorization of obscure facts makes my head spin. 

Long, long ago, when I was a sophomore in college, I took a major test for a course in Classics. I thought that the Classical period was very interesting. I bombed the test, however. One question from the exam has remained with me for over 45 years. In an identification portion of the exam, the character I was tested on to represent my knowledge of Classical history was Bucephalus. Who might this important person be, I wondered helplessly? An emperor? A playwright? A river? A general? I had no idea.  

No, it was none of these. Rather, Bucephalus was Alexander the Great’s horse. A famous horse, apparently. Famous enough for me to have known his identity and not that of Cicero. My sad ignorance of this fact, like the questions on the survey that Levine believes means that we must stop with all the memorization, meant that I didn’t know much about history. 

When I taught in Illinois, I had to pass a state constitution test. I flunked it several times before finally passing, because we were allowed to retake it on the same day till we succeeded. It included questions like, “If Illinois were to hold a Constitutional Convention, in what city would it be located?” The only answer I had was, “Who cares? They won’t have one, and if they do, it’ll be in the papers.” Another stupid test with high consequences: I had to pass it to retain my certificate to teach literature, writing, and language. 

If you gave me a fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice test on what I read last night in “Mexico: Biography of Power,” I’d probably flunk that, too, because picayune details don’t register well with me. I’m much more interested in the broad historical narrative than in knowing whether José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori was born in 1830 or 1832 (1830 is correct), or served six or seven presidential terms (correct answer: 7), or whether he was president for 31 years or 35 (31 is correct, even though he’s credited with being in power for 35, including time outside the presidency).

What I want to know is what sort of president he was, why he went from liberator to repressor, and other questions that I would ask of his tenure. Not what someone else asks me based on details dredged from memory.

If I were to title the essay I’m responding to, it’d be: “New Survey Reveals That Policymakers Don’t Know Much About Assessing History.” Because pulling details out of the deep recesses of a historical narrative and finding that people don’t know them doesn’t tell me a thing. 

 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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