In defense of knowledge

The Knowledge Matters campaign is lobbying for schools to teach a broad curriculum including history, science, geography, art and music — especially to “those least likely to gain such knowledge outside school.”
You’d think there’d be no need to ask schools to teach knowledge,  but it’s being pushed aside by drill in reading skills and by the belief that kids don’t need to know anything because they can just look everything up.

“Fifty years of solid research demonstrates that broad knowledge is vital to language comprehension and deep knowledge is vital to critical analysis,” argues the Knowledge Matters campaign. “Through broad and deep knowledge, students become the informed, thoughtful citizens our nation—and world—needs.”

Blame Woodrow Wilson for social studies

Woodrow Wilson, now reviled as a racist, bears an even heavier burden of shame, writes Bill Evers in National Review. He’s responsible for replacing history, geography and civics with “the abomination we call social studies.”

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

The Wilson administration’s U.S. Bureau of Education puts its clout behind a 1916 federal report on social studies, issuing the report as a bulletin and promoting textbooks using the new approach.

“Social studies” should not focus on chronology or the workings of government, the report said. Instead, teachers should focus on “concrete problems” that are “of vital importance to society.”

That sounds familiar.

History should be studied if it’s “practical or functional,” social studies enthusiasts believed. “Ancient Athens was studied not as part of the political and intellectual development of Western civilization, but rather in connection with the contemporary problems of city planning,” writes Evers.

The “key note of modern education” is “social efficiency,” the report concluded. Social studies was to train students to “take a job based on the service the job ‘rendered’ to ‘the community’,” rather than personal preferences.

Instead of recommending that students study the social sciences in order to form an independent mind knowledgeable about the past, the 1916 social-studies report effectively encouraged students to conform and adjust to prevailing views. Ever since this paradigm change, social studies has been bedeviled by fads, fashions, and indoctrination in the name of relevance.

Many Americans “don’t know what happened or when” in history, Evers concludes. They don’t understand “federalism or our system of checks and balances.”

I wonder how many could tell Woodrow Wilson from Flip Wilson.

Those who don’t know history …

Ninety-eight percent of high school seniors couldn’t explain Brown v. Board of Education on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, according to the Boston-based Pioneer Institute. States should require students to pass a U.S. history exam “with a strong focus on the founding documents” to earn a high school diploma, argues a new Pioneer report.

States, perhaps with federal help, would have to set aside funding for high-quality training in “the teaching of rigorous academic content,” the report adds. “Administrators should focus their hiring on teachers with strong content knowledge,” rather than familiarity with “the latest pedagogical techniques.”

Trendy education ideas, such as “21st century skills” and “authentic learning,” focus on showing students “how the issue they are studying either reflects or will impact the life they live now,” the authors write.

The idea that the purpose of education, let alone history education, is to remove a student from the here and now and to get them to understand ideas and worlds beyond their immediate interests is anathema to proponents of today’s trendy reform ideas.

“The stories of the past – be it about the rise and fall of Napoleon, the march of Alexander the Great across Asia, or the rise and ideas of businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller – are intrinsically fascinating,” they write, not just “for what lessons their stories can offer us today.”

History and the right to pee

In WIGS, an online mockumentary series, children tell historical re-enactors that the First Amendment guarantees the right to pee. and insist “James Madison” can’t be president, “because you’re not black.”


On 2nd thought, don’t draw Muhammad

World history students won’t be asked to draw Muhammad — or any other religious figure — in Acton, California, a desert town, reports the Los Angeles Daily News.

A parent, Melinda Van Stone, complained about a history worksheet on the rise of Islam, which asked students to produce a quote and picture for “Muhammad,” “Quran,” “Mecca,”  “Bedouins” and other vocabulary words.

Seventh graders were told to draw a picture of Muhammad next to a quote. Credit: Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News

Seventh graders were told to draw a picture of Muhammad next to a quote. Credit: Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News

Drawing pictures of vocabulary words is a common technique. I think it’s an offshoot of the “multiple intelligences” fad.

Van Stone, who declined to state her religion, told the Daily News that her 12-year-old son was sent to the office six times and given an alternative assignment during class discussions on Islam. She believes he is being punished for her complaints.

In Islam, images of prophets, whether of Muhammad, Jesus or Moses, are not allowed since people may worship these images, Muzammil Siddiqi, an Islamic scholar, told the Daily News.

Baseball lessons

Juan Lagares scored twice in game 1 of the National League playoffs to help the Mets win. Photo: David J. Phillips, Associated Press

Edutopia links to baseball-themed activities for the World Series.

Statistics is a natural. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) offers Baseball Statistics Lesson Plans for grades 6-8,  a baseball statistics lesson for grades 3-5 and a geometry lesson for students in grades 6-8.

A star pitcher in the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige was 43 when he started in the Major Leagues.

A star pitcher in the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige was 43 when he started for the Cleveland Indians.

There are baseball-linked lessons in other subjects too. The Negro League eMuseum features primary sources, including a timeline and history modules covering various Negro League teams, as well as lesson plans for teachers.

Other lessons include: Narrative, Argumentative, and Informative Writing About BaseballBaseball Economics and The Physics of Baseball.

When I was in school, kids would sneak in transistor radios to follow the World Series, catching each other up during passing periods. Without weeks of playoffs first, the Series was more exciting.

Why do students — and teachers — hate history?

Why Do Students Hate History? asks Grego Milo, a world history teacher in Ohio, in Ed Week.

The textbook covers 5,000 years — from the origins of civilization to the 21st century. He focuses on some time periods and goes lightly on others, but worries that students don’t care about DaVinci, the Roaring Twenties or Sun Tzu.

Students who dislike his class tell him it’s boring. “How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?” they wonder. (I wonder if they’re fans of Don’t Stay in School.)

That’s a “good question,” writes Milo. Strengthening his students’ “thinking skills” is his top priority.

I want them to make reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event. I want them to understand a decision’s consequences, for the long term as well as the short.

Students can “practice decision-making skills with any subject,” so why chose “a boring one,” writes Milo.

He doesn’t like teaching history as a chronology of topics.

Why do my students have to learn about the fall of Rome or the East India Trading Co.? Maybe one of them would like to focus on elections in Burundi.

History “only becomes interesting when you know enough about it so that new information makes sense,” responds Pax Britannica in comments. “It is also impossible to make sense of the past if we study it out of sequence.”

Why do some history teachers hate history? asks Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. She continues here and here.

The fall of the Roman empire or elections in Burundi?

Why teach about the Roman empire, if some students would prefer to study elections in Burundi?

Students have to learn some basic history before they can know what topics they might find interesting, she writes.

Chronology creates a story. What happened next? That’s inherently interesting, writes Beals. Chronology also makes things easier to remember and helps clarify an event’s causes and effects.

I’ve always loved history. But I didn’t love social studies. Our world history class consisted of hopping here and there around the globe with no sense of what might have led to what. There was no history.

Purity and stupidity

California schools and roads named for Confederate leaders will have to be renamed if Gov. Jerry Brown signs SB 539. Two elementary schools in the state are named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That seems to be it.

Two California public schools are named for Robert E. Lee.

Two California public schools are named for Robert E. Lee.

“The small coastal city of Fort Bragg, a former military outpost named for an officer who later defected to the Confederacy, was exempted,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

Why stop with Robert E. Lee? asks Darren in Stupidity From Sacramento. If the goal is ideological purity, then a lot more renaming will be necessary.

Berkeley was named after “a slave-holding Anglican priest,” he writes. George Berkeley’s sermons explained to the colonists why Christianity supported slavery,” according to the New World Encyclopedia. Rename it!

And how about all those Catholics — you know, those people who don’t like abortion like good Californians do — we can’t have cities named after them!  Say good-bye to San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Santa Barbara, etc.  And Sacramento–the capital of the state! — is named after a religious activity, a sacrament!  Who were the natives around here, the Maidu?  Let’s find a good Maidu name for Sacramento.

California’s major cities are named after missions founded by Father (soon to be saint) Junipero Serra, who enslaved and tortured the Indians.

Should California honor Junipero Serra?

Should California honor Junipero Serra?

My friend Elias Castillo’s book, Cross of Thorns, describes how even Serra’s contemporaries were shocked by treatment of the Indians, many of whom died of disease and despair.

If Confederate leaders are verboten, so should cities named after Serra’s missions and all the schools, colleges, roads, etc. named after Serra himself. (The Junipero Serra Freeway has a statue of Serria so ugly that it’s more of a disgrace than an honor.)

Fun with slavery

Letting middle schoolers earn game points by stacking bodies in a slave ship turns out to be offensive, reports Liz Dwyer on TakePart. A Danish company has withdrawn the Tetris-style component of Playing History: Slave Trade 2 after a social media backlash.

“Travel back in time to the 18th century and witness the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade firsthand. In this episode, you will be working as a young slave steward on a ship crossing the Atlantic,” reads the description of the game at the Steam store. “You are to serve the captain and be his eyes and ears—reporting any suspicious activities is your duty. But what do you do, when you realize that your own sister has been captured by the slave traders?”

Students could then earn points as the game took them through various scenarios of Africans being captured, held in cages, and suffering in chains on the slave ship.

Some want Serious Games Interactive to drop the whole game. “Gamifying slavery trivializes a serious time in history that shouldn’t be fun,” Rafranz Davis, a Texasbased educational technology expert, wrote to TakePart.

Last year, Mission U.S.: Flight to Freedom, which features the escape of a 14-year-old slave girl, faced a backlash for turning slavery into an adventure. “Critics say the game . . . sanitizes the brutal institution,” writes Joseph Williams on TakePart. “By avoiding the perspective of Lucy’s master, they say, the game doesn’t compel students to consider how or why whites perpetuated the oppression.”

I’m offended by the slave trade game, but not by Flight to Freedom. What do you think?

It helps to have a sense of humor

Via Larry Cuban.