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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Tell Me Why We Teach History to Kids Anyway?

American Idle

What is the purpose of trotting through town, state, US, ancient, US, world, US history in schools? What are we hoping students are going to get out of it? At one time there was a civics argument — future citizens of our nation needed to know the history of democratic ideals, values, and responsibilities so that they would be prepared to vote, sit on juries, make their voices heard in their communities. I am not sure that parents, teachers, and certainly students still believe that. Our past is much more checkered, not the march of democracy. Voting on American Idol captures far more of our national attention then almost any political election. The loudest voices on nearly any issue are extremely well-heeled lobbying groups — the voice of the individual is rarely heard.

I am exaggerating, certainly. This political year has engaged more people, and more young people, than in a long while. Popular culture is always, well, popular — that is nothing new. There is the famous case of Babe Ruth defending the fact that he got paid more than the President by saying, correctly, that he "had a better year."
But even so, I see little evidence that we as Americans really believe that knowledge of history — ours, our neighbors’, the world’s — is necessary to citizenship. We test knowledge of facts we no longer care about,  we teach expository writing (supported by three facts), and we completely miss the point.

If history matters, as I believe it does, it is only because it teaches us a way to think — to hunt, study, search, judge, research, formulate theories, and defend them. History gives us an endless field of play to exercise those skills of diligent search and fresh thinking. That is why we need it — and why it does not matter whether we like or dislike the Founding Fathers, whether we study national heroes or expose their feet of clay. The goal is the search — and students do need those skills no matter what history we come to care about today or tomorrow.

Comments

  1. Deborah Bryson says:

    What a provocative essay, generating much thought. If one accepts the premise that teaching history is solely for the purpose of teaching research skills, then why bother with history in particular? Why not research any subject? I think we teach history because it is a record of human ideas and values, a treasure trove of human thought and resultant action. It presents kids (and adults!) with a realm of possible choices from which to formulate a personal system of values or principles. There’s a tremendous arrogance, isn’t there, in assuming that each of us can arrive at these ideas naturally. Studying history gives us a wealth of ideas to consider, helps us to understand how others have formulated principles of thought and action, and allows us to make our own choices from a wider pool than just our own feelings or ideas. Perhaps our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were flawed, but history is not just a cult of personality but a synthesis of ideas, a collective reasoning based on experience and all that has come before. I’m hoping that the lack of comment on this essay is merely a stunned response to the nihilistic tone, and that others will soon leap into the debate.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Deborah:

    Well said. The tone of my piece was, at least in intention, not nihilistic but rather realistic. Over and over again I hear from librarians and even teachers that they do not like history, find it boring, think of it as names and dates. I say just the opposite, it is an opportunity to think.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Deborah:

    Well said. The tone of my piece was, at least in intention, not nihilistic but rather realistic. Over and over again I hear from librarians and even teachers that they do not like history, find it boring, think of it as names and dates. I say just the opposite, it is an opportunity to think.

  4. Gary Hemmingway says:

    If Mr. Aronson’s question was simple to poke a stick at a hornet’s nest I hope he is successful. As a teacher responsible for social studies and English is a diploma completion program in whioh students must be at least 18 and the ‘original class’ graduated without them my experience is that while English still gets a bad rap historical studies are catching on. Our social studies elective curriculum is rich and tries to focus on the story not just dates, names and places.

  5. Patti Gorham says:

    Ideally, children are given ample opportunities to construct meaning and to make sense out of the life lived, the war fought, the idea envisioned and tried.

    And, let us not forget Vygotsky and his attention to the dialogue–for it is in the discouse that the “…diligent search and the fresh thinking…” can be challenged and informed.