‘You have to know history to teach it’

“You have to know history to actually  teach it,” historian Eric Foner says in an Atlantic interview. Too many history teachers are athletic coaches, he says.

Students need to know historical facts — and to understand “every selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation,”  says Foner. He wishes his college students could write essays.

Many elementary schools spend little time on history, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge Blog. Students don’t develop the historical knowledge or vocabulary to understand history when it’s introduced in later grades.

On of Ed Week’s most-viewed commentaries of 2013 was on students’ lack of history knowledge, notes Hansel.

Author Vicky Schippers, claims that we’re teaching history wrong—as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam” instead of as “a study of struggles, setbacks, and victories.”

Schippers tutored “Tony,” a would-be high school graduate who “had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled.” He’d heard of Abraham Lincoln, but couldn’t link him to the Civil War.

Hansel wonders if Tony got a string of bad history teachers — or if it was something else.

It could be that all of Tony’s history classes consisted of terribly boring facts that Tony decided not to memorize. But I’d guess that at least some of Tony’s teachers delivered the facts along with the struggles and stories—and I’d guess that Tony’s listening and reading comprehension were too limited to follow along.

K-6 teachers average 16 to 21 minutes a day on social studies, according to a 2012 survey. And history is only a fraction of that.

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Lisa Hansel would do well to consider another explanation. Perhaps Tony–and millions of other young people–could follow along but just isn’t interested. I am struck by how many young people just don’t want to know what happened before their world existed.

    Now perhaps this is because they have had terrible history teaching that was little more than memorizing disconnected dates, but I doubt it–as, indeed, does Hansen. Too many people who make ed policy seem to assume that there exists some substantial only-has-to-be-released interest in history in just about everyone. Like the potential energy in a piece of paper, it only requires dryness and a match to set it into flame. But perhaps most young people are more like Ove Gloves (R).

    For a history teacher to assume that deep down, most young people want to understand history may be as silly and deluded (and as perfectly understandable) as an eight-year-old assuming that deep down I want to be able to play his video game.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      I’ve noticed that the kids who love history often have parents who love history and who take them to museums, historic sites, etc.

      But… most people have always found history boring, which is why history buffs are considered odd.

      To get kids to love history, we’d probably have to start in preschool– maybe throw out the ‘early reading and math’ stuff and instead read them the Little House books, take them to places like Williamsburg or living history farms, and let them dress and play like people from long ago….

      But that’s not going to happen because many preschool and early ed teachers ALSO see history as boring.

      (Among the homeschooled crowd, there seem to be a lot of history buffs– but I think that’s mostly because of the sort of people who tend to homeschool…_

      • I wasn’t a history buff. Sure, I read some historical fiction back in high school, along with rather ridiculous amounts of sci fi and fantasy, but I’ve never really been interested in history. Yet my children and I are very interested in it now, and it’s because of our homeschool curriculum. Thanks to A Well-Trained Mind, I chose to read Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World to my children, one volume each year, and we have all been learning stories from world history that are very fascinating and which I never heard before, such as the assassination of Korea’s Queen Min, the Japanese attack on Port Arthur, and Honoria’s “engagement” to Attila the Hun. What I’ve seen with our family makes me wonder if history instruction in the schools mostly suffers from not being narrative enough. Stories engage; lists of facts and summaries of events don’t.

        • We sometimes use that, too. We also enjoy Joy Hakim’s US history series. While neither series is perfect, my kid reads them like novels. Then when I get a book about the Bill of Rights, I hear a story about the main characters before we delve into the details of it.

    • Now perhaps this is because they have had terrible history teaching that was little more than memorizing disconnected dates, but I doubt it

      My experience (in both public and private schools) were that while disconnected names and dates were not all that was taught, they were all that was TESTED.  If you could not regurgitate them as disconnected factoids on the paper, you failed.

      My hatred of the subject and history teachers lasted for years.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Good point. It is really hard to test for understanding. It is even harder to do so in a way that does not take lots and lots and lots of teacher time.

        And high school teachers who try to test for understanding find out something ironic (or tragic). Kids have gotten used to regurgitating facts and are uncomfortable if you try to get them to do something different. “Your questions are confusing.” “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

        I was even once told by a student, after I had told the class I wanted them to think and not just memorize, “But Mr. Sweeny, high school is for memorization. College is for thinking.”

  2. When I was in K-5, back in the 80s, we did learn the presidents and states in 5th grade, but most of our ‘social studies’ was either Black History Month or learning, repeatedly, the difference between needs and wants. I’m sure that we learned other things, but, looking back at the bits of saved school work that my mom gave me, I don’t see a lot of evidence of learning history. We did do a unit on state history one year.

    I’m doing Core Knowledge with my homeschooled kid. He has loved history – not all parts of it, but he’s loved learning about wars and battles and likes to reenact them with army men. We’ve learned about the Intolerable Acts, and are currently working on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Learning about history has allowed us to have interesting discussions ‘Should there be a law against everything that we think is wrong?’ ‘What is people use the right to free speech to say things that we disagree with?’ ‘What do you think the most important right in the Bill of Rights is?’. We try to put things in some general order and have bought a timeline poster so that we can see what was happening in other parts of the world during whatever historical event we’re studying, but we don’t emphasize specific dates at this stage. I figure that we have plenty of time to add specificity later – he’s only in 2nd grade – but at least he’s got a few ‘hooks’ to hang information on. It always cracks me up to see him using strategies from actual battles when he plays with his toy pirates, and I was once told that I wasn’t following the Constitution with some rule that I had made….which just gave me a chance to explain that I am not the government.

  3. “Too many history teachers are athletic coaches, he says.”

    Ding! Ding! Ding!

    Especially here in Texas, where someone who is merely an excellent history teacher has no chance to be hired because history courses are set aside to provide make-work employment for otherwise worthless coaches.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — George Santayana


    College freshmen throughout the nation reveal a striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history, and know almost nothing about many important phases of this country’s growth and development, a survey just completed by THE NEW YORK TIMES has shown.

    … A large majority of the college freshmen showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt, and they had little conception of the significant trends that have made the United States the nation it is today.


    — New York Times, April 4, 1943

    We are now approaching 70 years in this country of bemoaning the sad state of kids’ history knowledge. I suspect (but do not know) that there won’t be many proposed solutions that haven’t been tried in the past. It would be refreshing to see either (a) a new “solution”, or (b) some explanation why a solution that was tried and failed in the past will work this time.


    But, and this is the ironic part, that would require some knowledge of the history of education in this country. I don’t see much of that from the folks who are trying to fix things 🙂

  5. The problem of teaching history is a tough one. I learned only the most rudimentary history in school. I knew the dates and causes of the major wars, a couple of dozen historical figures and the merest hint of ancient history.

    As an adult, however, I learned the importance of history and have spent decades reading history and biography. I think it’s true that few young people put any value to history or have enough time in their curriculum to spend enough time to learn much.

    The only way I see this working is that we instill a love of learning in our youth, then depend on that to motivate them to fill in the blanks of their own learning as the years go by. That’s the way it used to work, I guess*, but most of that old world seems lost now.

    *I’m reminded of the stories Lillian Hellman used to tell about Dashiell Hammett; that in the last few years of his life he became interested in optics and the eye and read dozens of books on the subject. He also got interested in bird calls and experimented with using hearing aids to hear them better and from farther away. We just don’t seem to make people like that any more… so sad.

  6. Jerry Doctor says:

    This problem isn’t unique to history. As the science chairman of the largest high school in my state, I was dismayed at the lack of Biology, Chemistry and Physics majors applying for jobs. Instead we got “Science Education Majors.” If we had a rule that you could not teach an AP class unless you could pass the AP exam, we’d have lost two-thirds of the AP instructors in the district.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Honestly, I think part of the problem is that women have too many options now! When I was in high school, most of the AP teachers were older than my mom. They came from an era where a woman with a knack for science became either a teacher or a nurse, and they were mostly brilliant. PhDs in their subject area, great teachers to boot, etc. etc.

      My classmates who had that level of science ability mostly became doctors or engineers. In fact, we were actively discouraged from considering teaching as a career choice– we were supposed to go out and take over industry!

      OTOH, the economic crash seems to have moved a lot of smart, science-oriented millenials back into the classroom, so maybe improvements are ahead?

      • Indeed. The attitude towards smart girls in the early 90s was “don’t just be a teacher or a nurse (and certainly not a stay-at-home mom–horror!) when you can be scientists and lawyers.” A state college held a free, nominated-participants-only conference for two STEM-talented girls from each high school where they sat us down and showed us an overhead projection of the exponential nature of population growth so that we could understand how our having children might endanger humanity. Then I assume we got told a lot of forgettable stuff about our career potential as I seem to have forgotten it. I ended up getting a straight math degree instead of a math education degree (because education wasn’t what the really smart people went into) and then went to law school. But I don’t want to litigate, and it turns out I love teaching math, especially to children in my home. Stupid social engineering conference….my happy, productive life is a failure in their eyes because I’m not a childless Ph.D. in a STEM field.

        • I had the same experiences as a girl at an STEM high school. We were constantly lectured on how it was our job to change society by having high-powered careers.

          Meanwhile, some of my classmates really loved working with kids, had a knack for it, and would have been amazing teachers. But they were told that to even consider such a thing was failure. (I like my own kids, did NOT do so well with other people’s when I tried it…)

          Now, many of the girls I went to school with are in the second half of their thirties, have high powered careers, regret that they never had kids, but have no time to date because they’re working 80 hour weeks…..

          I wonder if all the people who told the smart girls not to reproduce or teach realized what that would do to the next generation…..