The problem with history education

This past week I was again in Fort Collins, Colorado, as one of hundreds of readers of the World History Advanced Placement (WHAP) test. This is a test that mostly 15-year-olds take to see if they can earn college-level credit for a (ideally, unusually rigorous) high school course. And although that may sound like a barmy idea, and for the many students who bomb the test probably is a barmy idea, enough students write essays surpassing in knowledge and analysis what I normally see from my university students to legitimize the whole shebang at face value. The collateral elevation of standards and expectations is also probably a good thing, insofar as it doesn’t just ratify class-and-culture hierarchies in ‘public’ education. Long discussion, that.

The reading itself involves a solid week of scoring about a hundred or so essays a day, from 8am to 5pm, with breaks for snacks and lunch. Most readers read the same question all week; both years I’ve read the ‘continuity and change over time’ essay, last year on trade in the Indian Ocean, this year on the Silk Road. We are trained and do the scoring on a standardized rubric, with accuracy the first priority and speed closely following. For me it’s a good reality check to see what ambitious high school students are being taught and what they’re actually learning, plus it pays pretty well for a week of hard work.

Each year there’s a professional development speaker. Last year it was Bonnie Smith, whose work I have long admired. This year it was Sam Wineburg, who I had never heard of but should have. Sam is a cognitive psychologist with a background in theology and experience teaching high school history who researches history education and runs the Stanford History Education Group. He also spoke at the OAH this year. His book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (1991), looks like a good read. He argues that the way historians think critically, in terms of sources, contexts and corroboration, is quite distinctive and possibly valuable, although he allowed as how any number of cultures have managed to get along just fine without much of a historical consciousness. He doesn’t think there’s anything natural or automatic about knowing how to think historically – it must and can be explicitly taught. He thinks the same about knowing how to teach history. If you want people to know how to do things, you have to teach them.

Sam’s talk was a rhetorical delight. He softened us up by telling several long autobiographical shaggy-dog stories, in the tradition of great Jewish comics like the young Woody Allen,

in which he subtly developed the point that even very bright and accomplished people can know a lot of history without knowing how to think like a historian. Knowing facts and knowing what to do with them are distinct cognitive operations. He then demonstrated this with a number of examples from his research, in which he found that top high school students often outperformed trained scholars in content knowledge measured by multiple-choice testing. But when presented with primary sources the professionals were able to ask questions about authority and context that extracted far more information and meaning from the texts.

Incidentally, this discrepancy in factual mastery mirrored my own department’s struggle to satisfy ongoing assessment requirements related to accreditation. There’s a push to norm our students’ learning outcomes by national standards, but the main available test to do that is a multiple-choice exam of content knowledge, most of which we do not teach or even think is important. Recently we took the test ourselves to get a better understanding of it and perhaps compile evidence of its ir/relevance to our work. We did relatively poorly; for example, the many questions on minutiae of U.S. political and diplomatic history were a challenge to those of us whose training and interests are in the social and cultural history of other parts of the world. We did not see any useful correlation between knowing the random factual junk on the test and being ‘historically literate’ or an ‘educated person’, although this may just be our dumbass sour grapes.

Sam gently lampooned current outcries about the ignence of our youth,

pointing out that such fretting itself has a history as old as mass education. The biggest problem in history education is not that our students are factually ignorant, but that factual knowledge is still taken and imposed as the measure of historical education. (Ironically, nothing says ‘ignorant’ by the standards of historical scholarship like thinking that historical literacy is being able to answer factual questions about names, dates and events.) Focusing on content coverage at the expense of knowledge development skills makes for easy assessments but is cognitively counterproductive. We’ve got to stop chewing up the worms for the baby birds and teach them how to get their own.

Sam got cheers from the crowd with his critical remarks about Bloom’s taxonomy. Apparently the high school teachers have it coming out their ears. He thinks knowledge cannot possibly be the foundation of the cognitive hierarchy, because you don’t actually know anything until you’ve gone through all the steps of investigation, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Knowledge is the output, not the input. I think he’s right, with the proviso that I’d see the process more dialectically: each new investigation is informed in part by the knowledge developed in previous ones. He says as much in his emphasis on the ways trained thinkers use background knowledge to zero in on salience and rough out context in their readings. I suspect he’s pointing toward something more like William Perry’s classic cognitive scheme but I’ll need to read the book.

Practically, Sam identified source assessment and contextualization as the key historical skills, recommended engagement with primary sources as the high road of history education from sixth grade forward (he and his team have had success with their curriculum in an experimental elementary school), and offered a basic rubric of questions to work into classroom practice until they become deep cognitive habits. These include subsets on sourcing (who wrote this, when, why; is it believable), cross-checking (other pieces of evidence, different versions of the story, comparative credibility), and context / perspective (imaginitively reconstructing the lives and perspectives of past others). It’s comfortingly similar to my own reading rubric, which I have gradually been making more and more central to all my teaching. So I agreed with Sam, which is no doubt why I enjoyed his talk so much.



  1. I’d endorse everything here, as part of learning by inquiry. Literature courses are more complicated, because the “content” is not the facts contained in books, but second-order, abstracted phenomena like “style,” “narrative,” “themes,” and so on. But students who understand the sources and contexts that they’re receiving, and who learn how to assess and construct these for themselves, are what we’re after. Not that you’d know from most literature classes.

  2. I dunno. The best person on these questions on the philosophy of history side is IMHO Frank Ankersmit, whose work I reference all the time to uncomprehending lit and history types. Most practicing historians I’ve run into seem to sever the pedagogical issues from the methodological and theoretical ones, which to me is nuts, but like all content models ‘solves’ the problem by ignoring inquiry and worrying about ‘transmission’ instead.

    From my perspective, though I don’t expect many lit types to follow me, the theoretical/methodological issues are most compelling when students are struggling through activities like interpretation/contextualization etc. for themselves. But that assumption completely destroys the ‘coverage’ rationale for lit courses, which are conventionally based on predetermined units like period, genre, author (the age of johnson; the 18th century novel, etc. etc.)

    The problem of doing it the way I suggest is that we’d read a lot less in our courses, though probably comprehend that little bit a lot better. And naive empiricism is alive and well in all sorts of areas of lit studies, as when we go all googly-eyed over ‘the archive.’

  3. Oh yeah, don’t get me started on The Archive. Nothing makes historians sound more like priests or fratboys than that conversation.

    I’m still working out how to teach this way, but my sense is if we really took a theoretical / methodological approach to pedagogy and tasked the students with investigating and working through networks of text, context, intertext and countertext they’d end up reading more, as they discover it, and it would make more sense to them and do them a heap of a lot more good. What would get lost is that narcissistic reading list at the front of the syllabus where we show imagined peers how clever we are about what to ‘make the students read’, and that carefully crafted lesson plan where if it’s Tuesday the 14th it must be the French Revolution, whether they’ve understood the Enlightenment yet or not.

    I don’t know Ankersmit – what would you recommend?

    [Btw I’m off on a road trip to Maine so it may be next week before I pop back in here.]

  4. This is the Ankersmit, I think, that got me started. He’s got more recent stuff, but these essays are where he lays out his own version of a “post-structuralist” history.

    The funny thing about “the Enlightenment” is how unimportant a term like that becomes in a class devoted to actual research in primary sources, which of course would never use such a term to describe what they’re up to. My students last term were worried about far more immediate problems: what does Equiano have to do with Boswell or Franklin? What genres carry over from one place to another? etc. etc. I realized last term how we use terms like Enlightenment to organize our lectures, but they’re actually of very little use for students trying to do independent research in works or authors of this period.

    The trick, I’ve found, is trying to structure an undergrad course with sufficient time and space for both shared and independent readings that nonetheless add up to something greater. Still trying to pull that trick off.

  5. Ahhhh….this is great stuff! Mucho thanks for all of it. I no longer teach World History, but I still enjoy reading stuff on the list serve, where John Maunu posted your web address. I look forward to reading many more of your columns. I always started a semester by writing a quote from Santayana (I think)on the board that said “History is a pack of lies told by a bunch of people who weren’t there.” I figured that was a good place to start, and it always was. Thanks, again…..

  6. That Woody Allen bit has always been one of my favorites. It also has an interesting historical aspect to it (or, at least, the version of it I’ve heard; didn’t listen to this one): that is, the punch line (“The joke was on them, because it’s restricted”) isn’t one that many people would understand today, in that such clubs either are not openly restricted (particularly w/r/t Jews) or would not openly say they are.

  7. Hey All, thanks for holding down the fort during my travels. I ate a lot (Maine = lobstah), played with kittens, got a cold, and was that guy everyone on the plane hates for coughing into the air circulation system every two minutes.

    Mikhail, my bad! Let’s do it next year.

    George, it’s great to see you here. I like that quote too (and the more ironic version that historians are people who tell other people’s stories for a living). It points to an interesting question about the centrality of experience to knowing, the classic claim being something along the lines of “You’re (a man) (white) (young) (American) (etc.), so you can’t understand.” If that’s literally and strictly true, then the whole historian’s enterprise is dead in the water….

    Hi, Narya! Good point about context. In fact, in this version of the bit (probably as part of an abbreviated set for a national tv audience), Allen delivers the line “And the joke is on them, because they don’t allow Jews,” I’m assuming because he couldn’t count on the majority of the audience in that context to know much about the practices of country clubs or have an immediate referent for ‘restricted’.

    Dave, thank you, I’ll get on that. I like your point about categorization. In the spirit of Sam’s talk we might say that organizing categories should be the product of knowledge and thus an outcome of investigation; they do their worst mischief when we start with them rather than ending up with them. But what does this say about the accumulation and pedagogical transmission of scholarship? Like labs in the sciences, should we ask the students to reinvent all of our wheels?

  8. I worry about the status and priority of the categories, too, but I think this problem is inevitable in historical inquiry, which has to deal with earlier writers’ categorizations, generalizations, narratives, etc about their own historical moment, as well as additional accounts produced in the meantime. So it’s not just Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Civil War, but Henry Adams’, Louis Menands’ etc. etc.

    The best rejoinder, I think would be a position like what you describe as Sam’s: students must use others’ observations etc. to begin assembling their knowledge, but must learn how to contextualize those accounts in relation to one another. Sourcing and corroboration are two of the ways that we teach students how to refine the generalizations, categorizations, etc. they pick up from others.

  9. Pingback: keeping it cool in the information pool « The Long Eighteenth

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