Copyright 2005 Los
All Rights Reserved
Los Angeles Times
February 24, 2005
SECTION: CALIFORNIA; Metro; Editorial Pages Desk; Part
B; Pg. 13
HEADLINE: Commentary; A
History of Flawed Teaching
BYLINE: Sam Wineburg, Sam Wineburg, author
of "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts" (Temple University Press,
2001), is a professor in Stanford's School of Education.
Imagine this: Nearly a
third of the students who apply to Stanford's master's in teaching program to
become history teachers have never taken a single college course in history.
Outrageous? Yes, but it's part of a well-established national pattern. Among
high school history teachers across the country, only 18% have majored (or even
minored) in the subject they now teach.
I don't doubt the dedication of
these people. The application statements I read at Stanford shine with a
commitment that renews one's faith in the passion of today's youth. And nearly
every one of these young people is willing to forsake a more lucrative career --
in law, medicine, business -- to pursue teaching.
But how can you teach
what you don't know? Would someone who wanted to teach calculus dare to submit a
transcript with no math courses? Would a prospective chemistry teacher come to
us with a record devoid of science? Yet with history, the theory goes, all you
need is a big heart and a thick book.
The state of California encourages
this state of affairs. Although it requires teachers to earn a rigorous teaching
credential before they may teach math, English, biology or chemistry in the
public school system, there is no such credential for history. Instead, the
state hands out a loosey-goosey "social science" credential.
to teach history in California (and in many other states), you can
possess a major in almost anything -- anthropology, psychology, ethnic studies.
All you've got to do is earn the "social science" credential and pass a
multiple-choice exam of historical facts. But a storehouse of facts is the
beginning, not the end, of historical understanding.
History courses made
up of all facts and no interpretation are guaranteed to put kids to sleep. And
that's exactly what seems to be happening. In a national survey some years ago,
1,500 Americans were asked to "pick one word or phrase to describe your
experience with history classes in elementary or high school." "Boring" was the
most frequent answer.
It should be obvious why this is. I don't care how
much you know about child psychology or cultural anthropology, when you have to
teach the Marshall Plan, the partition of India or the bombing of Hiroshima, you will be no
more than a brittle pedagogue if you have no choice but to obey the textbook.
History engages students only when their teachers possess deep knowledge; when
they don't, history has the vitality of sawdust.
History comes alive when
viewed as a patterned story open to ongoing debate. Did Truman drop the bomb
because he wanted to save American lives, as a typical textbook claims, or
because he sought to intimidate the Soviet
Union and dissuade it from pursuing territorial
The shopworn saying that a good teacher needs only to stay a
chapter ahead of students is widely believed -- but patently false. History is
about how events in one age sow the seeds for what happens next. Good teachers
foreshadow later lessons when teaching earlier ones -- by helping students see,
for instance, that the configuration of power left in the wake of World War II
would eventually erupt as the Korean War. History is just a random mess to those
who remain a chapter ahead.
Lack of knowledge encourages another bad
habit among history teachers: a tendency to disparage "facts," an eagerness to
unshackle students from the "dominant discourse" -- and to teach them, instead,
what the teacher views as "the Truth." What's scary is the certainty with which
this "Truth" is often held. Rather than debating why the United States entered Vietnam or signed the North American Free Trade
Agreement or brokered a Camp David accord, all
roads lead to the same point: our government's desire to oppress the less
powerful. It is a version of history that conjures up a North Korean reeducation
camp rather than a democratic classroom.
We're in an age when states are
tripping over each other to beef up standards for students. But how can we
expect students to attain high standards when we set the bar so low for
February 24, 2005