Paul Horton: Why Study History?

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I invited Paul Horton, a history teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, to write on the topic, “Why study history?” He wrote this essay.

Betsy Devos’ War on History is Just Another Trip to Fantasyland

Without history we are lost. Without history we are disconnected, thrown into limitless space and time that has no ground or purpose. Learning history is central to learning individual identity and how that individual identity fits into a larger picture or purpose.

Up until the “age of mechanical reproduction,” to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, history was passed from generation to generation in the form of face to face storytelling. The griot, the elder, or grandma and grandpa, wove meaning into the telling of family and human history. The storyteller wove the individual, family, and human stories together into a fabric or pattern of meaning, into a place and a purpose. The teleology of the individual became a part of a fabric of a larger human story that had beginning and ending points with a purpose.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as storytelling has been largely lost in an endless sea of competing narratives and digital noise, we are losing our sense of the past. To be sure, academic and popular historians continue to pen compelling narratives, insisting that narrative storytelling is not a lost art. But, as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has demonstrated, fewer and fewer students read books, and the required history books that they do read are neither compelling narratives nor accurate depictions of national or global pasts.

In the United States, history texts are censored to cut objectionable social and political history at the behest of conservative state school boards in the South who seek to restrict “critical thinking.” As more and more Americans become more concerned with their “white identity,”(Jardina, White Identity Politics, 2019) Western Civilization and European History courses are making a big comeback to seize ground in curricula, displacing recently added World or Global History courses that make use of the best contemporary research.

History has been demoted in the curriculum to a step-cousin of literacy, standardized testing, the so-called “Advanced” Placement course, and, in its most current iteration, an instrument of propaganda designed to promote a whitewashed American exceptionalism that folds neatly into Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Dutch Reformed version of providential history, a history dominated by those like her who have received grace and have been rewarded as “visible saints” and who see themselves charged with rebuilding the great Puritan “city upon a hill.”

DeVos has used the decline in History and Civics scores on the 2019 NAEP to discredit public education and “government schools,” but she does not know what she is talking about as usual. (see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/04/23/betsy-devos-calls-low-history-civics-marks-stark-inexcusable-are-naep-scores-worth-fretting/ )

As the NAEP has also made abundantly clear, students are reading less and they are not reading books and narratives. If DeVos or her predecessor, Arne Duncan for that matter, were to ask history teachers what the problem was, the history teachers would point to the problem of digital learning or the coming of the “igeneration.” Students who have grown up with iphones have shorter attention spans, give less attention to detail and context, as reading degenerates into scanning. The prevalence of scanning rather than has made students more resistant to reading for understanding and analysis. According to studies conducted by Sam Wineburg and his colleagues at Stanford History Education Geoup, the average students’ ability to critically analyze historical texts is abysmal (see article linked above).

Secondly, as popular historian David McCullough has long contended, most history textbooks are so dull and watered down that students hate to read them. Because much of what students want to learn is deleted by conservative state schoolboard watchdogs, students correctly liken reading these books to eating a thin, tasteless gruel. The compelling narrative histories of Joy Hakim offer an exemplar of history writing that should be used at every grade level.

Thirdly, standardized testing has effectively consigned the acquisition of meaningful and enriching historical narratives to the dustbin of history. With the coming of the punitive No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Every Child Succeeds Acts under Bush II and Obama, narrative histories have been pulverized into standardized test item data points that are separated from meaningful context. The Common Core Standards, as implemented during the Obama administration, emphasize basic reading literacy skills measured by multiple choice tests or basic regurgitation short essays that repeat the same words and phrases that are graded by algorithms.

Rather than reading narrative histories and novels, students read selected historical documents. The problem with this emphasis is that it borrows from the outdated New Criticism approach that fails to connect documents to broader contexts. Historical thinking requires a constant analysis of the connection between the document and context. This is where Sam Wineburg and his Stanford History Education group fall short. For example, Common Core lessons developed as a model of how the Gettysburg Address should be taught does not consider the broader contexts during the Civil War and American society when the address was penned. (see Horton, “Common Core and the Gettysburg Address,” Education Week, Nov. 21, 2013)

Moreover, The Common Core revision of the American Social Studies curriculum, C3, makes a similar mistake. The curriculum deemphasizes history in favor of the social sciences (History makes up 70% of the required high school curriculum), and it emphasizes the Document based question. This is not in itself bad, but DBQs need to be done right. Here the DBQ Project that originated in Evanston, Illinois High School, is far superior to the materials produced by the Stanford History Education group in providing narrative contexts for the analysis of documents. Again, what is missing from C3 is the vital importance of narrative reading research papers of varying lengths. Any historian will tell you that analysis of documents must be pieced together into a sustained and coherent argument that connects documents to broader contexts and interpretations. Critical analytical thinking is the product of this process. (see, Paul Horton, “History Matters: The C3 Social Studies Standards are Fool’s Gold,” Education Week, Jan. 16, 2014)

A former student who helps program Amazon robots for Amazon warehouses told me that she learned how to think and solve problems from my history class that used this constant analysis of going back and forth between document and context to weigh proximate cause and pattern recognition issues. Teaching authentic history is teaching thinking skills that can be applied to any problem. Is it a coincidence that so many lawyers are history majors?

Fourthly, standardized testing for literacy pushes history and social studies to the margins of the curriculum. As testing for basic literacy became used to score the performance of teachers and schools, the teaching of history was deemphasized. Principals predictably moved all of their resources to training that would raise reading comprehension scores. This required making use of Common Core materials that did not make use of historical narratives, and that focused on discrete documents severed from a broader picture as noted above. As the former Direction of the National Council for History Education in Illinois, I received many complaints from History teachers across the state that indicated that History departments in middle and highs schools were dropping history courses and combining English and Social Studies Departments. A preservice History Teaching Professor at Western Illinois University complained that “because History is not tested” as a part of the recent Common Core testing regime “it really did not matter.” This is certainly what many building principals were thinks as they moved resources and teaching assignments away from Social Studies and History departments. I have no doubt that this phenomenon of resource depletion was a common pattern across the country in recent years.

Finally, at the upper end of the high school curriculum, I would argue that AP History testing has played a huge role in diminishing the learning of History. Although the AP History courses have been redesigned recently, the emphasis on standardized multiple-choice regurgitation on 50% of the test items (that up until a few years ago set the mean for subjective portions of the tests) again emphasizes data points over thinking and interpretation. I was a very successful AP History teacher at several schools as my students achieved very high average scores on their tests. But, as I became a grader and began to talk about the tests with teachers from around the country and the world, my enthusiasm for the AP program diminished considerably. Most teachers reported that after cramming for the AP tests their students did not appreciate any intrinsic value in studying history and that the long-term impact of cramming and regurgitation registered little retention in long-term memory. The biggest problem with AP is that students learn to view the History course as something with transactional rather than intrinsic value. Students take the course and the tests to earn scores to test out of required survey history courses in college. This process demeans the value of history as something important to learn. Significantly, excellent college courses in history are not taken by many of our most capable students who are more worried about organic chemistry and finance. Harvard Historian Jill Leplore reports that when parents find out their students have signed up for history, “their parents tell them to run away.”

The biggest single problem with AP is that building Principals like to up the metrics of AP enrollment in their schools to boost their school’s reputation. This sounds good for district and school PR, but problems abound with this approach. We see it on the grading end where graders routinely find folders containing twenty-five blue books that score 0 because the students taking the test don’t write more than a sentence or two, leaving the rest of the blue-book blank. The problem is that many of the students selected into AP classes lack the reading skills to master History at the AP level, there are not enough History teachers who are trained to teach the AP adequately, and that the course is to rapidly paced and requires too much regurgitation.

History is plainly in crisis in this country, but not because “government schools” are bad as DeVos claims. At the broadest cultural level, the Humanities are under attack and have been defunded at all levels in favor of utilitarian ideas about finding a vocation. When a corporate and American Academy for the Arts and Sciences sponsored commission issued a report that recommended twelve principles for the teaching of the Humanities and the Social Sciences was issued several years ago called “The Heart of the Matter,” the report embraced the Common Core Standards as a necessary foundation for Humanities and Social Science education. The signatories apparently did not understand that the Common Core Standards were coupled with a standardized testing regime that diminished the very values that its authors sought to valorize.

If we are to save history in the United States, or at least increase NAEP scores, we must replace standardized testing with Project based learning, exciting narrative reading, and essay and paper writing. While document analysis is at the core of historical thinking, that analysis must be subsumed within the reading of compelling narrative histories that tell the exciting and engaging stories that all students love to read. Students need to work on history projects that “light the history flame” rather than regurgitate tired, discrete, meaningless facts. Students love stories and we need to get back to history as storytelling, history that cannot be reduced to multiple choice test items or computer graded essays.

We are clearly adrift in the United States. We are lost and we are facing several existential crises at once. In the words of novelist-historian Kurt Andersen, we have entered “Fantasyland.” “The American experiment” according to Andersen, “the original embodiment of the Great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America, those exciting parts of the Enlightenment have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”

But, says Andersen, “Little by little for centuries, then more and more faster and faster during the last half century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.” (Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History, p.5)

I submit that the crisis of magical ahistorical thinking is every bit as pressing as the crisis of environmental sustainability. Indeed, as the work of J.R. McNeill and so many other environmental historians demonstrate, historical understanding and sustainability go hand and hand. A return to learning history will allow us to better think about how to turn down the heat.

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