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Teaching History: A Collective Responsibility


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Tanner, C.J.


There’s a lot of talk these days about the failures of our public education system.  Politicians and pundits alike love to point out how our nation’s students are struggling to compete with their foreign counterparts in subjects such as reading, math, and science.  A subject that often seems to be missing from the conversation, however, is history. I contend that a lot of the issues we face in the United States today stem from the low understanding of history within our nation.  


In recent years, America’s youth has increasingly began embracing socialism and our collective understanding of political issues appears to be on the decline.  Along with this, we can’t discuss politics with each other anymore without someone (or everyone) becoming outraged in the process. What’s happening to us? The answer to this question is a complex one, but I believe a large part of that answer is that America has forgotten her history.  And worse: America has stopped effectively teaching her history.


When the problems of public education comes up, people are often quick to jump to the following solution:  Blame the teachers! After all, teachers are supposed to be the ones filling our children with the knowledge they need.  They spend day after day with our kids, so any lack of education must be because the teachers don’t know what they’re doing.  Meanwhile teachers grumble about parents sending them children who have little respect or discipline. Now before we go any farther I should point out that I am a high school history teacher, so perhaps I am about to show my bias on this issue.  While I wholeheartedly agree that we as teachers are responsible for a large portion of the education that America’s students receive, I don’t believe that this should be the whole story - especially when we’re talking about the subject of history.  


Imagine the following scenario:  A regular church goer arrives at church one Sunday morning.  He then walks straight into his pastor’s office and exclaims, “Pastor, my faith is terrible!  I feel like I have a distant relationship with God, and I have very little knowledge of the Bible.  I come to church every week, but I still feel like I don’t know very much about God. This is all your fault!”  The pastor, who spends week after week in constant prayer and study for his next sermon, responds with, “I’m sorry that you feel that way.  May I ask how much time you spend in prayer and bible study throughout the week?” The original man then retorts, “Don’t make this about me, pastor.  This is on you, not on me.”


Now replace the church goer in the scenario with a student and the pastor with the student’s history teacher.  Then substitute the topic of God with the subject of U.S. history. Whether in the classroom or in the media, teachers take most of the blame when it comes to the lack of history education in the country.  Perhaps a large portion of the criticism is justified. But if our collective understanding of history is to be improved, we need your help. Teaching history to our children shouldn’t be a responsibility that rests solely on teachers.  Instead, this should be a shared responsibility among educators and parents.


As has been the case throughout America’s history, the solutions to our biggest problems often originate at the most basic levels of society.  That’s right, I’m not going to suggest that the answer will come from Washington, D.C. If we want our kids to know more about our nation’s history, we need to place a stronger importance on it in our own homes.  I don’t mean we need to replace our family pictures with portraits of Washington and Jefferson (Although I would totally be on board with that idea in my own home. Convincing my wife...well that’s a different story.).  But parents should be willing to share with their children the stories of their own childhood, and to discuss what they remember about the world when they were younger. History, after all, is more than just names and dates.  It’s the real stories of real people. Some of my earliest history lessons consisted of my dad telling me about life when he was growing up. Neither of us realized it at the time, but this was helping to cultivate within me a love for the stories of the past.  So give storytelling a try, parents. You have the ability to be much better teachers to your children than we school teachers could ever hope to be; it just takes some time and effort.


Now on to the teachers.  Sorry, teachers, you aren’t off the hook here.  All too often, students who have a genuine love for history - and even some that don’t yet realize they love history - walk into classrooms across America only to be bored to tears.  They hunger for the stories of history, but what they get is a seemingly endless list of names and dates along with a dry textbook. “Here’s a worksheet, kids. You’ll have a test over it tomorrow,” they hear as they take their seats.  (Confession: I’ve been guilty of being this teacher all too often.) This isn’t teaching; it’s babysitting. And it has to change if we have any hope of making a real difference in education. We don’t have to sacrifice our names and dates.  Those have their place, after all. But for goodness sake, can we at least make it interesting? Let’s bring these stories to life for our kids and show them that history matters - and can even be cool! Also, let’s make sure to be accurate in our teaching.  This means checking and rechecking our sources as much as possible. A good rule of thumb here is the more we can use primary sources instead of our textbook, the better education our kids are going to receive. In short, history teachers (and all teachers, for that matter) let’s apply this quote from the legendary Fred Rogers:  “The best teacher in the world is somebody who loves what he or she does, and just loves it in front of you.”


These reflections barely scratch the surface on how we can improve our collective understanding of America’s history.  There is so much that we can do to help our kids learn more about the past in order to help them handle the future. The most helpful things we can do are to calm down, stop playing the blame game, and understand that the solution will come through teacher-parent cooperation.  Parents, instill in your children a love and appreciation for America’s history. Teachers, teach history with enthusiasm and accuracy. Perhaps if we start here, we will one day be a nation that once again treasures the stories of its past as we build a better future.          

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