Don't know much about history

Nearly a third of would-be history teachers who apply to Stanford’s master’s in teaching program haven’t taken a single college history course, writes Sam Wineburg, an Stanford education professor, in the LA Times.

Among high school history teachers across the country, only 18% have majored (or even minored) in the subject they now teach.

In other subjects, the state of California requires subject-matter knowledge. “Yet with history, the theory goes, all you need is a big heart and a thick book” — and a “loosey-goosey ‘social science’ credential.”

To qualify to teach history in California (and in many other states), you can possess a major in almost anything — anthropology, psychology, ethnic studies. All you’ve got to do is earn the “social science” credential and pass a multiple-choice exam of historical facts.

Some teachers end up teaching history as a series of isolated facts, writes Wineburg. Even worse:

Lack of knowledge encourages another bad habit among history teachers: a tendency to disparage “facts,” an eagerness to unshackle students from the “dominant discourse” — and to teach them, instead, what the teacher views as “the Truth.”

The less the teacher knows, the more certain he or she is of the truth.

Wineburg is the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

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  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    There are still history teachers in California? History hasn’t been subsumed into the gray goo of “social studies” as it has in other states?

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    We have taught history here in California ever since our sneak A-bombing of the peaceful Japanese and our vicious attack on The People’s Republic of North Korea.

  3. I’m astonished – even in the liberal heart of Oregon I still needed to take a 3 class sequence of history to graduate college…

    … or maybe it was just that I chose history as the most palatible of the liberal arts core stuff I had a choice of.

  4. traceyd says:

    Some issues with the article: Aren’t some history classes required as a part of all undergraduate work, lumped in with the dreaded “general ed” requirements before you can concentrate on your major courses ? If you are interested in teaching middle school, Social Studies is the name of the game, not history.

    I just got a credential 4 years ago. I was not a history major although I took as many courses as I could get away (and American Studies courses) pursuing my BA. When I returned 10 years later to get a teaching credential, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at what I was required to do.

    After being away from the subject for so long I wasn’t sure I would pass the Praxis (the multiple choice test mentioned). The subject matter tests are very difficult. I have seen this requirement hold up many students as they attempt to become “subject matter competent” to obtain a secondary credential

    I was told to be “subject matter” competent I would need to take 30 units of history, economics and two Social Science courses. I took the 30 units and then tackled the credential (another 30).

    As to Mr. Wineburg’s comments about teachers relying on a book to get them through – Have you been in a credential program lately ? Teachers to be prepare as if they won’t ever have a text in front of them in your classroom. The expectation is primary sources and critical thinking.

    The sad part of this is when you see the incredible amount of material you must cover in the standards (check out 8th grade)there seems to be little time to the hold class debates, with their research and preparation time and of course, a wrap up writing piece. These are the lessons we all hope to bring to the classroom, but the reality of implementation can be harsh.
    I find it a constant struggle.

  5. Sounds a little fishy. I’m in a single subject credential program for Math right now, and I have to prove to the state I am “Subject Matter Competent.” That is accomplished in two ways: by coursework, or by exam.

    Seeing as how I don’t have a math degree, I am opting for the test. I’m 99% sure History is the same…you can’t just show up and say “hey, let me teach History!” You have to prove you know the subject matter, and the CSET exam here in California is nothing to laugh at.

    I think it’s funny when people throw a hissy fit when teachers don’t have BA’s in their field. How many of us new 2 years into college exactly what we wanted to do? I sure didn’t, and I’m switching for the better.