History’s Tests

Chris Beneke

Testing brings out the anti-Whig in all of us it seems. The declension model was back in fashion last week as the American public was reminded of how little history it knows. The National Assessment of Educational Progress’ report on U.S. history revealed that American eighth graders have difficulty enumerating colonial advantages over the British in the Revolutionary War, fourth graders have trouble explaining Abe Lincoln’s importance, and twelfth graders often fail to grasp who was allied with who during the Korean War.

Here’s a quick summary of the academic fallout:

Several historians suggested that we un-knot our knickers. Sam Wineburg reminds us that we’ve been wringing our hands over our historical ignorance for about a century now and assures that common knowledge questions are not included in these assessments. In other words, graduating seniors probably do appreciate the significance of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, the bombing of Hiroshima, and Auschwitz. They just aren’t asked about stuff that we know they know. Paul Burke echoes Wineburg’s claim that the much bemoaned results may simply reflect the test’s design, rather than the United States’ descent into barbarity. James Grossman adds that, whatever the use of the individual questions, they may not have been asked of the right students. “[I]n many states children don’t study much U.S. history until fifth grade.” “Next year,” he quips, “let’s give fourteen-year-olds a test on their driving skills.”

Very little history until the 5th grade? Linda Salvucci’s argument is that this is precisely the problem. Indiana elementary students, for example, get a grand total of twelve minutes of history instruction per week. Salvucci says that “parents … really ought to be mobilizing to demand that public officials get serious about adequately funding history education in the schools. History must not be allowed to become some optional or occasional add-on to the ‘real’ curriculum.” Her conclusion: “We need a STEM-like (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiative for history.”

James Livingston lays some blame for the alleged poor performance at the feet of professional historians and their affinity for anti-glorious counter narrative. Viewing the matter from the perspective of a 12th grader, he writes: “If you tell me the past doesn’t matter because it’s a record of broken promises, systematic cruelty, and failed dreams, or because it’s an irretrievable moment of eccentric deviations from a norm of appalling complacency, fine, f--- it. If I can’t use it to think about the present, why should I bother? Thanks, Doc, you convinced me that I don’t have to.”

Happily, the NEAP flare up coincided almost exactly with the publication of Historically Speaking’s roundtable on historical thinking at the K-12 level. Fritz Fischer suggests that “[w]hen it comes time to write the guidelines for how history is taught in the classroom, historical thinking [as opposed to the digestion of content] needs to become the guide.” Bruce Lesh agrees and details how he focuses student attention on a series of provocative questions and getting them engaged in interpreting primary sources. Robert Bain draws this lesson from the teaching of world history—teachers need to keep the overarching economic and social forces in mind “while attending to what their students are thinking and learning.” The two goals, he points out, are not easily reconciled. Because while you may be thinking about the geopolitical forces that propelled the European conquest of America, your students are thinking about “Columbus’s desire for personal wealth and glory” (or something along those lines . . . ). Linda Salvucci wraps up the forum with a call for nudging the public toward better history. “[W]e need to grab, define, and educate the audience,” she writes. We need to offer history that is both accessible and edifying.