Radio Freethinker

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Saturday Stub: American High Schooler’s Still Find History Boring

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 18, 2011

No, I’m not stealing an article from The Onion. Rather, I’m voicing my long standing suspicion that students who do poorly in history do so, in part, because they find history extremely boring.The reason they find it boring? It’s not challenging, its not intellectually stimulating, and it doesn’t require any critical thinking.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, students have failed to improve in the area of history since 2006 when the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were issued four years ago, and now, after the 2010 test, they are still abysmally low.

Here are some shocking statistics from the article:

“Fewer than a quarter of American 12th-graders knew China was North Korea’s ally during the Korean War, and only 35% of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence”


“The news was even more dire in high school, where 12% of 12th-graders were proficient, unchanged since 2006. More than half of all seniors posted scores at the lowest achievement level, “below basic.” While the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders have seen a slight uptick in scores since the exam was first administered in 1994, 12th-graders haven’t.”

I was pleasently surprised to see the scores of minority students has increased. In the fourth and eighth grades, Hispanic fourth-graders jumped to 198 last year, versus 175 in 1994, African-American eighth graders saw an improvement to 250 points from 238 in 1994. This is a very important development. Traditionally, history in American was often taught from a very biased position that gave students of white, European ancestry, a significant advantage. And when I say “significant advantage” I mean, a privileged place in history.  All the white students got to read about hero’s like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, while black students heard about how Lincoln freed the slaves and Native American students heard about how the “Indian savages”  were conquered civilized by the colonials.

I’ve spoken in the past about the dangerous of turning historic figures into comic book hero’s.

Getting back to the Wall Street Journal article, I had some interesting conversations about this with some friends. Unlike science or math or other subjects, history is rather unique in the way you learn it. On the one hand, you have the raw knowledge of historic fact, when the war of 1812 was fought, that Lincoln was shot on April 15, 1865, and that Germany invaded Poland in 1939. On the other hand you have the critical thinking and historic analysis skill set which you use to understand the significance of historic events.

Unfortunately, the study of history is suffering. I doubt students in Canada are much better either. Sadly the teaching of history has become two segregated forms. In one form, taught at high schools, students are given a series of facts (sometimes you can only loosely attach the word ‘fact’) for which they are to regurgitate on command. The other form is taught in universities and its under siege. This form is all about establishing a method for analyzing historic fact. It’s about learning to adapt critical thinking to understand the past. As I said, this in under siege. I’ve also spoken of the ludicrousness of post-modernism, I won’t go into it here.

I wish teachers and policy makers would realize this is a problem and try to do something about it.


3 Responses to “Saturday Stub: American High Schooler’s Still Find History Boring”

  1. I think part of the problem is the survey-style structure of many public school history classes, which apart from being tailored to address the politically-correct concerns du jour are focused on recitations of dates, events and personages in order to facilitate the passing of standardized tests. There is little critical thought in understanding the real fascinating stuff behind the movements of history that have brought us to where we are now.

    To reach American adolescents today, you have to start with a hook that interests them personally and then branch outwards from there to make larger connections. Extremely hard to do in public schools unless you have students with imagination and intellectual curiosity. I think most of the social technology they rely on now actually stunts this even more.

  2. Ethan Clow said

    Thanks for those thoughts, Soldier’s Mail.

    I generally agree. History is often taught off of a time line of events where students are asked to memorize the key players around each event but rarely are they asked to considered the wider scope of why those characters are important or how those events shape their lives today. Now, I do admit we need to make sure we are achieving some levels of standardized success. We don’t want students from one part of the country learning one thing and students from the other part learning something totally different, but schools shouldn’t let standardization spoil any chance of critical thinking or inquiry into current society.

  3. Now we have the most excellent news that the California legislature has passed a measure mandating the teaching of “gay history”, as if a person’s sexual orientation has anything to do with the significance of their historical contributions. So, rather than simply re-focus on finding new ways to deliver the basics of civics, geography, historical events, personages and meaningful trends, we now must put on another politically correct lens in order to “interpret” history meaningfully for an additional protected class of citizens.

    Makes one wonder how a student simultaneously belonging to multiple protected classes (ie. black lesbians) can manage to understand something like the reasons for the American Revolution from three different perspectives (womens studies, black history and gay history) and succeed in passing a standardized test for college.

    Totally absurd. LOL.

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