Monday’s Mtg: What should U.S. school children be taught about history?

I think you will all be amazed at what a fascinating – and controversial – topic the teaching of history in American schools has become.

History curricula have changed a lot since most of us were in school. First, as I will explain in my opening remarks Monday, just based on California’s (900-page!) teaching guidelines, history requirements are more demanding and thorough than what I was taught. I’m not sure kids learn a greater quantity of facts. But, in parallel with other efforts to teach young people critical thinking skills, history and social science these days have a heavy focus on analytical concepts, comparative analysis, and independent thinking.

Second and of much noisier political concern is the assault on, or perhaps the long overdue replacement of, the standard narrative of U.S. history we absorbed. The one that saw U.S. history as a slow but steady triumphant march of democracy and progress that emphasized the actions and POV of the dominant White majority. Over the last 10-20 years, academic historians, political and social activists, school boards, and state legislatures have rewritten large parts of our kids’ history textbooks/instruction to be more inclusive, less triumphant, and more critical (honest?) about our past.

Now, the United States famously has no national educational standards, not even for math and reading much less the more politically-sensitive social sciences. Most states don’t even have state-wide educational standards for history, leaving it all up to individual school districts. There are no Common Core history standards.

But, there are some forces converging us towards common history instruction nationwide. All U.S. students must take an identical standardized history test in grades (I think) 5, 8 and 11, thanks to No Child Left Behind. But, the brand new Every Student Succeeds Act has made how states use those tests voluntary, reversing the intent of NCLB. The College Board, the giant non-profit testing organization, has its own recommended Advanced Placement history standards which many (some?) states/districts use. California is one of 17 states with statewide history requirements and it just did a huge revision of them.  Confused on who requires what? Me, too. I’ll sort it out better by Monday, but my point is there is some consensus on what American kids should be taught about history and very specific requirements in our state.

Also, everybody’s a critic of what standards do exist. Conservatives hate CA’s newly-revised, “leftist” history curriculum. Progressives hate the ways the College Board revised AP history in response to conservative complaints. There are Right versus Left textbook wars in many states, especially since 2010 when Texas introduced some um, bold changes to how textbooks cover the Civil War and Segregation.

So, I thought this would be a great topic for us, though I don’t think our entire discussion should be reduced to politics or squeezed into right-versus-left framing. There are a lot of thought-provoking but less partisan social, cultural, and even pedagogical issues we can get into. And there’s world history and the historical part of civics education, too.

I’m especially excited to do this topic now because in September I got the chance to lecture several local (Helix, Mount Carmel) high school social studies and speech classes on various topics. These modern high school students were an impressive lot. A great deal is expected of them academically and they work very hard. Let’s honor them by having a great discussion of this – I told you so – really interesting topic.

Below are some optional readings on what current history educational standards are and why they are controversial. My opening remarks will be limited to trying to summarize what kids are supposed to be taught about U.S. history in California under the just-revised curriculum. Also, we have a new topic list to be handed out, thanks to Linda and Aaron.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?

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2 responses

  1. I posted Limbaugh’s rant about Howard Zinn on the Meetup site; but here it is again as I think it’s most relevant to the discussion.
    He certainly gives this “radical leftist” a lot of credit!
    The pen is mightier than…something, after all!

    http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2016/06/17/how_radical_leftist_howard_zinn_poisoned_the_minds_of_two_generation

  2. I look forward to the day when students in Texas will be taught that Jefferson Davis was a traitor, although he was treated with exceptional leniency–as were others–and not convicted as one, although he–and he alone– was put on trial.
    Certainly, students should read his speech; it is part of the historical record.
    Also part of the historical record is how traitors were treated in recent English history (and others countries): Generally, they were executed, usually with cruel methods.
    My point is that the Southern traitors were treated leniently by any relevant historical standards, and I’m believe that was the right course.
    But to continue to glorify them 150 years after the event, is simply bizarre.

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