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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

History vs Hogwash

A dedicated 5th grade teacher wrote to me recently about the way she teaches:

In social studies we focus on essential questions such as, “What makes a good leader?” Or, “What has stayed the same throughout history, and what has changed?” We never study the Civil War as a topic, but we do study civil war and use many examples, including our own, to understand the concept. . .otherwise they would simply walk away with dates, names, and answers to dreadful end-of-chapter questions.

Now I agree about the dreadful end-of-chapter questions. You won’t find them in my books. (Teacher and student materials are elsewhere.) But you will find true stories in War, Terrible War, which was written with the idea that the American Civil War is part of every American child’s heritage.

Since so many textbooks are dull, desperate teachers and curriculum committees are throwing out history, which I see as a baby-with-the-bathwater choice. (Umm, could it be the textbooks they should be throwing out?)

Told well, history is not only the human saga, it is a multidisciplinary discipline, tying all the other subjects together. History is the super-subject that makes connections. It’s a great critical thinking subject. It gives you intellectual meat to gnaw on.

But history is hardly taught in many of today’s schools. What my teacher-friend is doing has become mainstream. “We never study the Civil War,” she says. She’s right to spend time elsewhere, if study of the American Civil War is reduced to a litany of facts. But when author Shelby Foote tells it, in his magnificent epic of that war, it becomes an adventure story with much to consider. As it is in Bruce Catton’s telling, and in Irene Hunt’s wonderful novel, Across Five Aprils. Not teach the American Civil War? There are few moments in history so packed with idiocy, courage, decency, big issues, and heart-aching stories.

Visiting a 5th grade in a history-centered classroom I saw students acting, writing, painting—attempting to live the Civil War. If their teacher had asked them about civil war as a concept, they would have known that civil wars aren’t all the same. Religion-based civil wars in Europe sent many of their ancestors fleeing across the ocean to help found this country. Those fifth graders would also have known that the textbook recently adopted in Virginia, which tries to foist the old untruth that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is promoting hogwash.

Could there be a connection between our stagnant reading scores and the elimination of story-based history in our schools? That some history textbooks are dreadful is no excuse. Dull books have no place in schools or libraries. Nor are standards an excuse. Studying facts with standards tests in mind has not led to high scores. A California teacher, who focuses on history and civics, and whose students score well, tells me he spends just two weeks a year on test prep. The rest of the year he teaches as well as he can.

“What has stayed the same throughout history, and what has changed?” It’s a great question for anyone who has dipped into the stories that history provides and knows how those stories fit into a larger tale.
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