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High School history deficiency–ignorance, or something else?

Here is an interesting opinion piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, with comments that follow, on the issue of how to improve the historical knowledge of secondary school students. What do you think? [BP]

December 01, 2009, 07:00 AM ET
History Outside the Classroom

By Mark Bauerlein

On the 2001 NAEP US history exam for 12th graders was a question about which of four nations was the ally of the United States in World War II. It turned out that 52 percent of test takers chose Germany, Italy, or Japan, not the fourth option, the Soviet Union.
How could they get it wrong? Everyone studies World War II in high school, and World War II appears in movies, TV shows, and popular books and games all the time.
The reason stems in part, I think, to the firm division adolescents make between school subjects and leisure interests. U.S history is a classroom activity, they believe — both the top students, the “overachievers,” and the bottom students, the dropouts. It has no meaning to them personally. They study it for the text and the paper, to get the grade and increase the score, that’s all.
What happens is that when the class is over, they forget what they’ve learned. Why remember it? It did its job, so move on to the next assignment.
What can help is to increase the presence of history in the leisure lives of boys and girls. A great example is to be found in a suburb of Atlanta, a local museum/bookstore/lecture center entitled the Circa History Guild. The Web site is here. There you can find information on upcoming lectures and presentations, such as a man impersonating John Jay, a talk on mill workers during the Confederacy, and a talk on the conservationism of Teddy Roosevelt. The museum space itself contains all kinds of fascinating Americana that teens would love, including a full-scale replica of the Liberty Bell, uniforms from past wars, and lots of books for children and young adults.
It’s an experiment in living history embedded in a community and separate from school. And it offers parents a choice. Do you want to drop your kids off at the mall for two hours, or do you want to take them to a place such as the Circa History Guild? The Guild is a leisure zone, but it’ll do more for the young ones and their school achievement than you realize.

1. post_functional – December 01, 2009 at 09:37 am
12th graders in 2001 would have been exposed to myriad depictions in pop culture depicting the Soviet Union as the United States’s recent primary adversary of forty years, and the other three as friendly nations.

2. shemcohen – December 01, 2009 at 11:23 am
Using Sarah Vowell’s work – Assassination Vacation; The Partly Cloudy Patriot; The Wordy Shipmates – is a great way to get 12th graders see history as a living subject. And one that can be cool.

I don’t think building museums like the Circa History Guild is a pratical solution.

3. dr_ll – December 01, 2009 at 12:56 pm
Perhaps they misunderstood the word “ally” in the question, or maybe they just skimmed it and saw “United States,” “World War II,” and a list of countries and assumed that “Germany” fit the pattern.

4. _perplexed_ – December 01, 2009 at 02:02 pm
Perhaps a portion of that 52% understood that their participation was a part of a larger exercise that had not been explained to them, that they had not consented to, and had no consequence for them. Why even try to get it correct?

5. markbauerlein – December 01, 2009 at 02:48 pm
Odd that three commenters here came up with explanations for why students got the question wrong, but didn’t mention the most obvious one: ignorance.

6. dr_ll – December 01, 2009 at 03:46 pm
Well, you already mentioned the obvious one (which I don’t dispute). I was actually just trying to point out another kind of ignorance, namely that students often do not understand the meaning of basic words, like “ally.” Also, they may have little incentive (as perplexed mentioned) and little practice reading slowly and attentively enough to grasp the details of what the question is actually asking. These factors certainly don’t account for all (or even most) of the students who got the wrong answer, but it helps to answer your original question: “How could they get it wrong.”

7. dr_ll – December 01, 2009 at 04:05 pm
Oh, my mistake, Mark, I see you were not making the argument about ignorance above but about academics and leisure time.

8. luther_blissett – December 01, 2009 at 07:56 pm
I don’t think a few visits to a few random museums will help students learn to *make* connections or to *see* connections in history (or any other discipline). These are high-level thinking skills, and museums do not, for the most part, involve their audiences in practice in high-level thinking.

What we should be having here is a pedagogy discussion. Mark admits that most of those students probably learned — i.e., were asked to memorize — the factoid about the Axis and Allies. But factoids are the first things to go when the brain stops using them.

Some factoids will stick better if they are associated with something really interesting, if the context of their learning is engaging. A funny teacher, a powerful picture, a study session with a beautiful study partner. Some will stick if the learner actually uses those factoids regularly. But let’s be honest: in the life of a 14-18 year old, how often is information about WWII truly useful?

9. goxewu – December 01, 2009 at 08:58 pm
Small point: Today’s students are almost 65 years removed from the end of World War II. Does one think that students removed by the same number of years from World War I (that would be in the early years of the Reagan Administration) could have correctly identified what side Italy fought on during that war?

10. rbrunson56 – December 02, 2009 at 06:39 am
The excuses offered in defense of ignorance are an interesting revelation, especially if those offering the excuses work in the realm of academia. Unfortunately, this defense of ignorance affirms what many of us (who operate outside of academia) believe to be the mindset of many in academia.
A solid understanding of history, including details such as who was aligned with whom in various conflicts, and an understanding of a number of other disciplines, is helpful in understanding and making sense of the way the world works today.

11. mbelvadi – December 02, 2009 at 06:46 am
I’m not sure what’s happening in today’s high school history classes, but in the late 1970’s, hate and fear of the Soviet Union was so strong in the US that you just couldn’t say anything nice about it, and you know the rule, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. So we were given the impression that the SU wasn’t actually an ally, but rather a separate “victim” of Hitler, fighting its own apparently unrelated war on the “Eastern Front” while we fought to protect and free our real allies, England and France. If there was any cooperation between the US and SU that could be termed “alliance”, it wasn’t presented to us, except maybe in the middle of a sentence about something else, and was certainly not on the test (which is all we bothered to learn, as someone else pointed out).

12. cleverclogs – December 02, 2009 at 08:20 am
I agree with mbelvadi – the Soviet Union’s name was mud when I was in school.

Re: goxewu’s #9 – “Does one think that students removed by the same number of years from World War I (that would be in the early years of the Reagan Administration) could have correctly identified what side Italy fought on during that war?”
Speaking from that generation, I couldn’t have identified anything about WWI except the phrase “entagling alliances” because we skipped it every single year in order to spend more time on WWII, the flashier and more morally complex of the wars. Then the one year we actually got to Vietnam, we skipped Korea to get to do it, for the same reasons. But by the time we got to Vietnam, it was June and my brain was spending considerable time thinking about how warm it was in my classroom.

Speaking also as someone who does a good amount of museum work (some of it living history), I think the key is repeated exposure. You have to go many times. I think hitting the museum like you hit the mall is an interesting idea. But in order to make that appealing, we’d have to fund museums and make them free. My dad grew up in DC where they are free and that is how he spent many afternoons. And he’s a WWII aficionado! Hm, you may have something here.

13. 22074041 – December 02, 2009 at 09:41 am
One can also argue that in studying history a wider range of human experience can be covered than simply “political” history or the history of wars: social, cultural, material, intellectual, economic and other aspects of how Americans lived in the past are not only relevant but intriguing to some people. The materials used to illustrate this past may be broader than text books, but include visual materials and original sources (diaries, letters, inventories). My trip to Williamsburg, Va. when I was 11 made me realize that the past truly IS another country – and I wanted to learn more. (Naomi F. Collins, Ph.D.,history).

14. markbauerlein – December 02, 2009 at 09:43 am
A comment from Will Fitzhugh:
“I read your piece on Brainstorm about History outside the classroom, and it made me realize that you don’t know about the National History Club, started for secondary students and teachers in 2002, and now with 375 chapters in 43 states, with about 10,000 members.
Surely this should be included in any consideration of History outside the classroom. I cc’d the President of the National History Club, Robert Nasson.”

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