Years ago, I watched an episode of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. One of the “person on the street” segments featured Leno asking bystanders two questions: 1) “Who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?” 2) Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” Only one viewer answered the first question (it’s the address of the White House). Every viewer knew the answer to the second question (Spongebob Squarepants). Wow!
This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with American historian and author David McCullough. The topic: the shocking lack of history knowledge among the college-educated populace. McCullough addressed four problems with today’s history education: 1) We teach history poorly if at all, 2) teachers are required to have a degree in education, not a subject, 3) history is taught as a series of discrete subjects which fails to give students a sense of chronology, and 4) history textbooks are boring.
The article quoted the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress, which “found that only 12% of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation’s history. And consider: Just 2% of those students understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education.” Seeing these results re-fueled my passion for tackling Cycle 3 with my young children next year. Whatever else I accomplish in my homeschool, I am certain that they will know that Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools. What’s more, they will know the preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the American presidents, the states and capitals, and the chronology of American history from Columbus to September 11.
McCullough is not the only notable American bemoaning the lack of history education. Diane Ravitch, professor at New York University and education historian, notes: “In 1987, I coauthored a book with my friend Chester E. (Checker) Finn Jr. called What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? which reported on the first federal test of history and literature. We lamented what seemed to be a loss of cultural memory, a position that hit a public nerve but was scorned in the academic world, which was then caught up in postmodernism and a revolt against “the canon.” Our view was that you can’t reject the canon if you have no knowledge of it.” In other words, we cannot educate our young people because we can’t agree on what to teach. In contrast to this postmodernist confusion, families in Classical Conversations pursue a clearly defined set of knowledge about history (and other subjects as well).
For example, it the Wall Street Journal article, David McCullough cited a conversation with a female college graduate who had no idea that the original thirteen colonies were all located on the East Coast! This problem is easily remedied with an inexpensive map and some paper. In Cycle 3, our children will learn to identify the original thirteen colonies in their geography memory work. The first problem—that American schools generally do not teach the content of American history—is solved by the memorization of a core body of knowledge about American history and geography. At home, families can supplement their history education with exciting stories about important Americans.
As students get older, they will reinforce this core body of knowledge by studying American government and economics in Challenge I and by studying American history from Columbus to the present in Challenge III. By building on their early education, we allow them to reinforce the knowledge they memorized in the early grades and to delve deeply into that knowledge in the later years as they begin to write persuasive essays and debate historical issues.
So, now for problem two—teachers receive a teaching degree but not a degree in a particular subject. As homeschool parents, we are not hampered by the requirement to have a teaching degree. However, many of us have to face the obstacle of gaps in our own education. This problem can be easily solved with two ingredients—a passion to learn and time spent reading. If you have gaps in your own U.S. history education, do some reading this summer to fill in the gaps. The A Patriot’s History of the United States is a comprehensive and detailed resource. If you don’t have time, plan to investigate great books which teach U.S. history and enjoy them with your family this year (a future article will address U.S. History read-alouds).
The third problem McCullough lists is the lack of chronological instruction in history. This is why we have our young students memorize the timeline of history from creation to modern times each year. In Cycle 3, we will also learn songs to teach the chronological history of the U.S. along with important people, places, events, and dates. In Challenge I-IV, students create a timeline each year so that they continue to see the chronology of world history.
Finally, McCullough laments the boredom of history textbooks. At Yale, McCullough had the privilege to study writing with Thornton Wilder, novelist, playwright, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He recalls that Wilder challenged students to write history in such a way that readers would be desperate to hear the end, even though they already know what happened. By learning along with our children, we can practice delivering stories with drama and excitement and can express our delight in stories that are fresh and new to them.
In conclusion, McCullough has a few recommendations. First, he would change the way we use the textbooks: “I’d clip off all the numbers on the pages. I’d pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I’d put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say ‘Put it back in order and tell me what’s missing.’ You’d know that textbook inside and out.” In Challenge A-IV, this is essentially what we ask of our students. Instead of spoon-feeding them knowledge, we ask them to research topics, create their own illustrations, and present them to the class. We ask them to engage in speech and debate events, and to create their own timelines and study guides. Finally, he would have teachers capitalize on the gift of the young for absorbing knowledge (think Foundations memory work).
I will think about Mr. McCullough throughout the year as we listen to history songs and stories in the car, draw maps of the United States, and complete presentations on famous Americans. I will ponder his suggestions as I listen to the speeches delivered by my Challenge III students and review their U.S. history timelines. Once again, I will be amazed at what the students accomplish, and I will be grateful for the vision of Classical Conversations and the communities of families.
Link to complete Wall Street Journal article
Link to National Assessment of Educational Progress 2010 Report Card on History
Link to Patriot’s History