Education Week magazine, the premier mouthpiece for the education establishment, recently touted a report on the study of history in American schools. “Students in U.S. classrooms,” says Education Week, “are startlingly ignorant of American history, but it’s not because their teachers have failed them. It’s because the curriculum in most schools focuses on memorizing ‘irrelevant, boring’ names and dates, according to a [recent] study.”
The report the article refers to, “Reimagining American History Education,” was, at least in part, a response to the results of a 50-state survey of history knowledge:
The foundation’s new report is a followup to a 50-state poll it released in February. That poll showed that only 4 in 10 citizens are able to pass a multiple-choice test made up of 20 questions from the U.S. citizenship test.
The report, published in May 2019 by The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, attempts to push back against critics who blame this ignorance of American history on ill-prepared teachers and lax history requirements in schools.
The Problem with Education Research
The progressivist establishment that has controlled American education since the 1920s is always wanting to “reimagine” education—not just history education but all of education. The problem is that these efforts to reimagine education seem to be part of the very problem the entities that publish them purport to try to solve. In fact, this report is like many others of its kind: It begins with certain presuppositions about the education issue it is addressing and then tries to fit the evidence into the Procrustean bed of its own assumptions about how children learn best.
The progressivists who run teachers colleges and professional standards boards in the United States bow to a very recognizable set of dogmas about education—the origin of which they have forgotten and the truth of which they take for granted. The Woodrow Wilson report is another hymn to two of these dogmas: (1) That memorization is bad pedagogy and (2) that knowledge is valuable only insofar as it contributes to the acquisition of skills.
But the report is also representative for another reason: Like many such reports, its standards of research are poor and its analysis of the facts it purports to have found is deficient. The shoddy nature of education research is not a well-kept secret. The vast majority of education studies are not replicated, and anyone familiar with the literature can testify to the predominance of anecdotal evidence over actual data, and special pleading over legitimate analysis.
Why Are American Students Historically Ignorant and What Is the Solution?
According to the report, the reason for the historical ignorance is the way history is taught, and the solution is progressive teaching techniques:
- The Issue: That the nation’s students do not know basic facts about American history
- The Problem: Traditional, memory-driven history instruction in schools
- The Solution: More progressive, child-centered teaching methodologies
The report acknowledges that there is a problem of a lack of factual knowledge, and attempts to address what it views as mistaken diagnoses of the problem. First, it argues, in one short paragraph, that the problem is not that there is not enough history being taught. It offers the following evidence:
- 45 states and the District of Columbia require the study of U.S. history in elementary school
- 39 states and the District of Columbia require the study of U.S. history in middle school
- 42 states and the District of Columbia have history, typically a year, as a graduation requirement at the secondary level
Never mind the fact that 5 states don’t require the teaching of elementary history, 11 states don’t require it in middle school, and 8 don’t require it in high school, which is a scandal in and of itself, but this tells us very little about the exact amount of history education that is actually occurring. And these facts are accompanied only by the assertion that all of the facts covered in the 50-state survey could be covered in one high school course, which is, of course, technically true, but such a statement begs the question of whether students adequately learn something by covering it once, as opposed to having the same knowledge taught repeatedly, through repetition and review. But, of course, repetition and review are part of the process of memorization, which, we must remember, is part of the problem the study begins by assuming.
Is Enough History Being Taught?
There is sufficient evidence to be concerned that there is indeed a problem in the amount of history education that is occurring. For one thing, there is the rise in the proportion of curricular time spent on test preparation, an inordinate amount of which appears to be coming at the expense of history and literature instruction. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. says in his Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories,
… a number of schools told me, after high-stakes reading tests came into effect under NCLB, that they could no long teach history and the arts. They now were being made to teach “reading” instead, with a strong emphasis on test preparation.
Every public educator I have mentioned this to affirms that this is a problem at his or her school. Hirsch notes in his book that the Journal of the National Education Association reports that, “In one study, the researcher noted that there had been a 47 percent reduction in class time devoted to subjects beyond math and reading.”
In fact, the evidence that time devoted to the teaching of history is declining in spite of numerous states mandating more teaching time on the subject is not hard to find. As Bruce VanSledright, Kimberly Reddy, and Brie Walsh write in the May 1, 2012 edition of Perspectives on History (published by the American Historical Association):
When asked, school principals and district social studies coordinators reported few reductions in curricular time devoted to history in elementary schools, perhaps reflecting their concerns with a mandate to provide a balanced set of learning opportunities for all students. However, almost two-thirds of the elementary teachers surveyed reported that instructional time in history had decreased substantially since 2002. When queried about how history education fared in comparison to other subject offerings, the stories began to converge: 88 percent of the elementary teachers noted that it was considered a low priority and 63 percent of the elementary school principals noted that history education’s importance paled in comparison to subjects such as reading and mathematics.(https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2012/the-end-of-history-education-in-elementary-schools)
In addition, there is disturbing anecdotal evidence from sources such as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which reported a debt in 2017 of $317 million and steep drops in attendance, a situation that led it to recently lay off employees and outsource many of its services. “With each birth cohort,” says HumanitiesIndicators.org, “Americans of all ages have been less likely to visit historic sites.” (https://humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=101)
Mitchell B. Reiss, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, revealed that the historical site attracts only half the numbers of people it attracted 30 years ago. He attributed part of the cuts to business decisions made in previous years, as well as “changing tastes.” But, he mentioned another: “[L]ess American history is being taught in schools.” These are the rueful words from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 2017 annual report:
For more than 20 years, the public’s enthusiasm for Colonial Williamsburg, indeed for all history museums and historic sites, has waned. It is a trend that has paralleled a national decline in the teaching of history in America’s schools at virtually every level. Today, we attract less than half the visitors we did in 1988. This decline, and its attendant financial challenges, has led to much soul searching about Colonial Williamsburg, both inside and outside the Foundation. [Emphasis added](https://www.history.org/Foundation/Annualrpt17/2017AnnualReport.pdf)
The report’s cavalier dismissal of the deepening historical ignorance taking root in America only contributes to the problem. What is the problem? It is that, as a character of Nobel Prize-winning writer J. M. Coetzee puts it, students are “[p]ost-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday.” (Coetzee, Disgrace, p. 32) Denying the problem will not solve it.
Are Teachers Adequately Prepared to Teach History?
The Woodrow Wilson report also addresses whether teachers are adequately prepared to teach history, and, in the only section of the report which contains adequate quantitative data for a conclusion, it finds that teachers are indeed adequately prepared.
It is comforting to know that almost half of history teachers, for example, have at least a bachelor’s degree in history, but discomfiting to know that, by inference, half don’t. The report cites a number of statistics establishing the adequate level of certification of most history teachers. But again, this begs the question of whether the certification process for teachers is itself proof of anything. Certification programs, run by teachers colleges, are notoriously deficient in any strong emphasis on historical content. If the problem is a lack of content knowledge of history, it is hardly an adequate response to point to how many teachers have availed themselves of a process of preparation in teaching history that itself suffers from an inadequate emphasis on content knowledge of history.
But eventually all these statistics are irrelevant to the authors of the report, even by the report’s own admission, since, “If there is a criticism of today’s history teachers,” it says, “it is that they do not look like their students; in 2015 more than 84 percent of history teachers were white, compared with 49 percent of students nationwide.” In what way having teachers who are not of the same race as their students hampers the ability of a teacher to teach effectively the report does not say.
And, in fact, part of the problem in teaching history may very well have something to do with race, but not the way the report imagines. Even when teachers are adequately prepared to teach history they are still discouraged from teaching certain aspects of it because of politics. Says Carol Markowicz in a 2017 New York Post article:
The Brooklyn teacher I spoke with says instructors balk when it comes to history: They don’t want to offend anyone. “The more vocal and involved the parents are, the more likely the teacher will feel uncomfortable to teach certain things or say something that might create a problem.”(https://nypost.com/2017/01/22/why-schools-have-stopped-teaching-american-history/)
She cited issues around Thanksgiving, like teaching the story of pilgrims and the Native Americans breaking bread together, as one that teachers might sideline for fear of parents complaining. Instead of addressing sticky subjects, we skip them altogether.
This effectively means that about the only person left acceptable to study is Martin Luther King.
But the report’s brief dismissal of the issue of how much history is being taught and whether teachers are up to the task of teaching it is designed to feed into its main point, which is that the problem is not that history is being taught insufficiently, but that it is being taught in the wrong way. And here is where the report ratchets up its special pleading.
What Is the Problem with How History Is Taught?
The report begins its analysis of proper pedagogy for teaching history by drawing a distinction. First there is what it calls the “heritage approach,” which “celebrates America’s past and focuses on teaching students the key figures, events, moments, and values in American history,” where the emphasis, it claims, “is on memorization.” And then there is what it terms the “historical approach,” which “treats the past as a dynamic narrative, seeking to teach students the skills of history: how to read primary and secondary sources, how to evaluate causation, how to understand others’ perspectives, how to apply historical knowledge to real-world situations—in short, how to think like a historian.”
The problem, says the report, is that history teachers are using the “heritage” approach when they should be using the “historical” approach. The report claims that most of today’s adults were educated under the older heritage approach, but students now are educated in a regime that employs a mix of the both the heritage and the new historical approach.
The first problem here is that the report offers no evidence for saying how many educators are using either approach. The authors simply assert:
Two conclusions stand out. First, most Americans were educated with curricula stressing the memorization of names, dates, and events. This is what the U.S. citizenship exam tests. The results indicate this approach has not been successful, beyond short-term recall.
Second, the American history curriculum in school today is a mix of the heritage and historical approaches, varying by state, testing protocol, district, school, textbook, and individual teacher. The best that can be said of this situation is that history education is uncertain and in flux.
The report offers not a shred of evidence for either assertion. The only fact even relevant to the issue is its earlier assertion that a number of states have implemented the C3 Social Studies Standards, which employ the “historical” approach. But that is hardly sufficient for concluding that teachers are actually using the pedagogy championed in those standards in their classrooms, rather than, say, “aligning” their current practices to the new standards by simply annotating their current programs to suit the new standards, which seems to be the rule whenever new standards are passed.
In addition, teacher training programs have, for almost a hundred years—ever since progressive forces gained control over teachers colleges in the 1920s—preached against traditional approaches to education, particularly memorization. In fact, targeting memorization for ridicule is one of the most predominate modes of virtue-signaling for modern educators, along with the badmouthing of drill and practice, the use of individual desks, and teacher-directed pedagogy. It is rather hard to believe that almost a century of the suppression of traditional pedagogy has not led to its diminished use, and its unpopularity among public school educators can be verified by visiting any modern classroom and taking note of the abundance of “flexible learning spaces,” like “learning pods” and couches. These are all intended to sideline the teacher, sometimes, more recently, through the use of individual tablets or laptop computers.
There is also the obvious question why, if there is more use of the historical approach now (even if still “mixed”) as opposed to before, and that approach is more effective, there has not been an improvement in the knowledge of history. Wouldn’t that be an argument against the effectiveness of the newer, “historical” approach?
Of the report’s four major conclusions, one of them is that historical knowledge has not, in fact, declined over the last hundred years. It points to poor performance on tests of historical knowledge since 1917. The report supports this conclusion by citing only one source: Samuel S. Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), consistent with its highly selective use of sources.
For one thing, if you are going to argue that students today are no more historically ignorant than those of previous generations, then you should have something to say about why Americans have a deep and widespread impression that they are more ignorant. The report should have at least some explanation for this, even if it is provisional. But, of course, it doesn’t. And the authors ignore the fact that, since 1917, a greater percentage of Americans attended school at higher and higher levels, a fact that, all by itself, should result in more knowledge among more students. The fact that it doesn’t is itself telling.
All of this, of course, is done in the interest of wiping the table clean so that the main business of the report can be pursued, which is to establish that traditional teaching (the “heritage” approach) is ineffective, while progressive methods (the “historical” approach) are effective. According to the report:
The problem is not that the schools have abandoned American history, the teacher force is uneducated, or the American history curriculum has been ravaged.
The problem is not new. It’s perennial. Memorizing random facts doesn’t work. [Emphasis added]
Another Piece of Progressivist Propaganda
The report then goes on to argue that “student engagement,” “active engagement,” “persistence,” and “the amount of time students spent engaged” lead to higher academic achievement. But the evidence offered for these claims nowhere establishes them. The evidence for the effectiveness of “active learning” is extremely soft, and there is no evidence for the ineffectiveness of memorization or any other traditional technique at all.
Any argument that one methodology was more effective than another would have to have some analysis of both methodologies and some kind of side-by-side comparison of the two. But any such comparison in this report will be sought in vain. In fact, the sources cited in the footnotes only repeat the report’s claims and contain no research evidence sufficient to establish them. The careful reader will quickly realize that if evidence exists for its claims about the effectiveness of progressive techniques relative to traditional ones, it is neither presented in this report nor available in the sources it cites. It is presented merely as dogma, a repetition that constitutes proof. According to the report:
Substantial research suggests that “active or interactive teaching strategies are more effective than didactic methods.” Done well, numerous forms of active learning can be effective compared to more traditional, passive methods.
But the book referenced in the footnote is about how to provide more “excitement” in the classroom. Whether this excitement leads to better learning outcomes is another issue.
In fact, despite the maledictions uttered against memorization, there is literally no evidence presented against memorization as a learning tool. And if the report expects the reader to accept its laudatory treatment of different techniques for “engagement” as evidence against the benefits of memorization, then it will have to explain why memorization does not count as a method that involves “engagement,” which it most certainly does.
Despite this lack of relevant evidence, the report dutifully repeats the litany of progressivist panaceas: “hands-on activities” such as “games and gamified learning,” “simulations and role plays,” “field trips,” “student choice,” and “integrating technology.” In fact, the report turns out to be little more than another piece of progressivist propaganda.
The authors might just as well have called these two approaches the “traditional” approach and the “progressivist” approach, respectively, since it employs one of the most egregious false dichotomies of progressivist thought: that between knowing and doing. Progressivism takes John Dewey’s distinction between active and passive learning and employs it as wedge between knowledge and skills. To teach actual knowledge, say progressivists, is to somehow diminish the skills involved in the attainment of knowledge, and the acquisition of skills is an endeavor that, they argue, has little to do with the attaining of knowledge.
As Hirsch points out in Why Knowledge Matters, the evidence does not actually support this, and, in fact, establishes quite the opposite: Skills cannot be taught, and indeed do not exist, outside specific content domains, and that teaching skills not only does not necessitate the jettisoning of knowledge, but requires it. (Hirsch, pp. 84–90)
The report offers no evidence for its conclusion that history is being taught ineffectively with traditional methods, and the solution to the problem for which there is no evidence is supported by an equally egregious lack of evidence. It is hard to see, then, what the worth of the report could be, other than perhaps as another reminder that those who are opposed to traditional pedagogy and content, though they are legion, are mostly show, and not much substance.