The Concord Review
14 October 2013
[submitted by invitation to NCHE]
When it comes to working together to support the survival and enjoyment of history for students in our schools, why are history teachers, as a group, as good as paralyzed?
Whatever the reason, in the national debates over nonfiction reading (history books, anyone?) and nonfiction writing for students in the schools, the voice of history teachers, at least in the wider conversation, has not been clearly heard.
Perhaps it could be because, as David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education in New York State, put it: “History is so politically toxic that no one wants to touch it.”
Have the bad feelings and fears raised over the ill-fated National History Standards which emerged from UCLA so long ago persisted and contributed to our paralysis in these national discussions?
Are we (I used to be one) too sensitive to the feelings of other members of the social studies universe? Are we too afraid that someone will say we have given insufficient space and emphasis to the sociology of the mound people of Ohio or the history and geography of the Hmong people or the psychology of the Apache and the Comanche? Or do we feel guilty, even though it is not completely our fault, that all of the Presidents of the United States have been, (so far), men?
I am concerned when the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds that 86% of our high school seniors scored Basic or Below on U.S. History, and I am appalled by stories of students, who, when asked to choose our Allies in World War II on a multiple-choice test, select Germany (both here and in the United Kingdom, I am told). After all, Germany is an ally now, they were probably an ally in World War II, right? So Presentism reaps its harvest of historical ignorance.
Of course there is always competition for time to give to subjects in schools. Various groups push their concerns all the time. Business people often argue that students should learn about the stock market at least, if not credit default swaps and the like. Other groups want other things taught. I understand that there is new energy behind the revival of home economics courses for our high school future homemakers.
But what my main efforts have been directed towards since 1987 is prevention of the need for remedial nonfiction reading and writing courses in college. My national research has found that most U.S. public high schools do not ask students to write a serious research paper, and I am convinced that, if a study were ever done, it would show that we send the vast majority of our high school graduates off without ever having assigned them a complete history book to read. Students not proficient in nonfiction reading and writing are at risk of not understanding what their professors are talking about, and are, in my view, more likely to drop out of college.
For all I know, book reports are as dead in the English departments as they are in History departments. In any case, most college professors express strong disappointment in the degree to which entering students are capable of reading the nonfiction books they are assigned and of writing the term papers that are assigned.
A study done by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that 90% of professors judge their students to be “not very well prepared” in reading, doing research, and writing.
I cannot fathom why we put off instruction in nonfiction books and term papers until college in so many cases. We start young people at a very early age in Pop Warner football and in Little League baseball, but when it comes to nonfiction reading and writing we seem content to wait until they are 18 or so.
For whatever reason, some students have not let our paralysis prevent them either from studying history or from writing serious history papers, and I have proof that they can do good work in history, if asked to do so. When I started The Concord Review in 1987, I hoped that students might send me 4,000-word research papers in history. By now, I have published, in 98 issues, 1,077 history research papers averaging 6,000 words, on a huge variety of topics, by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries.
Some have been inspired by their history teachers, other by their history-buff parents, but a good number have been encouraged by seeing the exemplary work of their peers in print. Here are parts of two comments from authors—Kaitlin Marie Bergan: “When I first came across The Concord Review, I was extremely impressed by the quality of writing and the breadth of historical topics covered by the essays in it. While most of the writing I have completed for my high school history classes has been formulaic and limited to specified topics, The Concord Review motivated me to undertake independent research in the development of the American Economy. The chance to delve further into a historical topic was an incredible experience for me and the honor of being published is by far the greatest I have ever received. This coming autumn, I will be starting at Oxford University, where I will be concentrating in Modern History.” And Emma Curran Donnelly Hulse: “As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task. At first, I did check out every relevant book from the library, running up some impressive fines in the process, but I learned to skim bibliographies and academic databases to find more interesting texts. I read about women’s history, agrarian activism and Irish nationalism, considering the ideas of feminist and radical historians alongside contemporary accounts...Writing about the Ladies’ Land League, I finally understood and appreciated the beautiful complexity of history...In short, I would like to thank you not only for publishing my essay, but for motivating me to develop a deeper understanding of history. I hope that The Concord Review will continue to fascinate, challenge and inspire young historians for years to come.”
Lots of high school [and middle school] students are sitting out there, waiting to be inspired by their history teachers [and their peers] to read history books and to prepare their best history research papers, and lots of history teachers are out there, wishing there were a stronger and more optimistic set of arguments coming from a history presence in the national conversation about higher standards for nonfiction reading and writing in our schools.
“Teach by Example”