All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


14 June 2011

In Which a Student of History Isn't Disturbed by Historical Apathy

Joanne Jacobs has a brief bit of commentary on and a link to yet another article bemoaning our country's lack of history knowledge. You know how it goes:

American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test released on Tuesday, with most fourth graders unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure and few high school seniors able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War.

I majored in a history field (Medieval Studies) in college. I took my high school history seriously. I read books on history all the time. In my work as a graduate student, I'm teaching undergrads about Medieval History and how the institutions and cultural shifts of the Ancient World were expressed in Philosophy.

I love history.

And I'm here to tell you that the sort of history most people think about when they think about how awful our students are at history is pretty much worthless. There's much hand-wringing about the dearth of "historical facts" in students' heads, as if that were important.

Now, I want to make a caveat up-front: I'm am not here advocating that students not be taught historical facts, any more than I would advocate that they not be taught literature and poetry. All of these things make one's life a better place. But I do want to try to argue that it's not the end of the world if students aren't learning them, or even if they're not interested in them. (Indeed, it would make me feel a lot better about students' not learning about poetry and history if the students were affirmatively uninterested in them.)

Let's look at an example of what people are so worried about:
Diane Ravitch, an education historian who was invited by the national assessment’s governing board to review the results, said she was particularly disturbed by the fact that only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision” of the United States Supreme Court in the past seven decades.

Students were given an excerpt including the passage “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and were asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct.

“The answer was right in front of them,” Ms. Ravitch said. “This is alarming.”

If I can digress for a moment, it's easy to say "the answer was right in front of them" -- except that the NAEP questions are generally well-written. I don't have the Brown question in front of me, but any question-writer worth his or her salt is going to have an option in there about women integrating into universities, and another about immigrants being able to enter public schools, both of which are perfectly plausible given the quote.

But back to my main point: it's not necessarily a great tragedy that few people know about Brown vs. Board of Education. I mean, really, how many people , let alone high school seniors, know about Marbury vs. Madison? That's at least as important a case, historically speaking. But no one worries that Johnny doesn't know about the establishment of judicial review just because they can't line up the case name with the concept. And that's in part because a lot of people don't care about Marbury the way they care about Brown. The reason that people want students to learn about Brown is because they value it, not because it's particularly interesting in and of itself. Really, in terms of the average American going through his or her life on a day to day basis, knowing about Brown vs. Board of Education is every bit as important as knowing the name and medical conditions of the seventh son of the daughter of Count Edward Thimblefinger, Earl of Grouse.

In other words, not very.

The study of history is the study of people, of how they react to different situations. It's basically a giant lab experiment that would be totally unethical if tried in the present, but because it's being done retrospectively, in the past, it's perfectly fine. You'd go to jail if you said, "Gee, let's drop two atomic bombs on Japan and see what happens..." and then proceeded to experiment. But looking back through the study of history, since someone actually went and did it, you can get all the data you want about it, or at least as much as is available.

If you want to know what happens to a legislature-governed people when you grant indefinite emergency powers to a unified executive, well, you can either do it (and find out) or you can look back into the laboratory of history and see what happened the last couple of times. Ceasar... Hitler...

But it's the lessons, not the facts, that are important. You don't need to be able to say that Brown vs. Board of Education overturned Plessy in order to learn the lessons it teaches: that separate schools and separate water fountains and separate theatres and separate train cars are inherently unequal, and that while people can deceive themselves, or at least put up a pretense of deceiving themselves to protect their financial and social interest, they can't deceive themselves about that forever.

Indeed, I've always been underwhelmed by Brown vs. Board of Education, and to the extent I'm interested in it, it is primarily for its effect on evidence law, which was much more revolutionary. Insofar as it relates to racial relations, far from being "the most important case of the last seven decades", the case itself is really just the "crack" of a cultural tree that was already falling under its own weight. The social attitudes were already in place for that decision and fetishizing it as some sort of momentous, earth-shattering decision gives the wrong impression of what it is the Supreme Court is designed to do anyway. The case was merely the way in which one side of an argument called the bluff of another side. And this time, there wasn't a Civil War, which there likely would have been if Brown was anywhere near as revolutionary and nation-changing as people like to pretend it is.

(A benefit of studying history: bluffs sometimes get called to disastrous result!)

Now, I'm not saying that you wouldn't get the same results (or worse) if you were asking more general questions to these high school seniors about the cultural shift to racial integration in the mid-20th Century. It might very well be worse, because most high school students aren't taught to think about history like that. They're given a list of names and dates and events and told to "learn history." They're told that it's important that they know what Brown vs. Board of Education is.

But it's not, not really. The case got decided, some law got made, and now life goes on. At best, the case is evidence for the important part of history, evidence that should be reviewed and treated with a healthy amount of skepticism with respect to any given conclusion. At worst, it's the jargonish name for a legal (and possibly ethical) principle that we attorneys use to try to win cases. Why on earth should it be some sort of moral imperative that high school students learn it?

Well, obviously the answer is in part "because the state put it down in the curriculum." And "because it's on page 243 of the textbook and the law says we have to teach the kids what's in the approved textbook." And surely there's a reason to sit up and take notice if the things we mandate by law aren't happening. (Perhaps we should sit up and notice that our laws are stupid, but at the very least we should sit up and pay attention!)

But I'm not going to get all upset because students can't tell me which products went where in the old slaves-sugar/cotton-rum/textiles trading scheme. That's just more evidence that can be used by students for drawing conclusions about Life. Sure, if I teach history, I'll teach my students about Triangular Trade, and I'll advocate that it's both interesting and useful to know about these things because of what it allows you to do in your thinking about the present. And the more history you know, the easier time you have thinking through human and societal behavior. But you could learn many of the same lessons by paying very close attention to the world around you, to the way people interact on a daily basis. And if you don't care about history, if you'd rather learn about carpentry and how to build a better house, well... I say more power to you. It's not like you won't learn history (at least the history of house buildings and flood plains) in the course of your studies. History is tied up in everything we do, in both subtle and obvious ways. You can't entirely escape history, but you can, if you wish, escape its formalized study as a distinct discipline. I don't recommend it because, as I said, I love history and I think it has greatly enriched my life; but it's certainly an option, and not an entirely unreasonable one.

I want to close with a quote from Alfred North Whitehead, recently the topic of some discussion between Diana Senechal and me:

I pass lightly over that understanding which should be given by the literary side of education. Nor do I wish to be supposed to pronounce on the relative merits of a classical or a modern curriculum. I would only remark that the understanding which we want is an understanding of an insistent present. The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. No more deadly harm can be done to young minds than by depreciation of the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future. At the same time it must be observed that an age is no less past if it existed two hundred years ago than if it existed two thousand years ago. Do not be deceived by the pedantry of dates. The ages of Shakespeare and of Molière are no less past than are the ages of Sophocles and of Virgil. The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is, the present, and the mere lapse of time through which any particular group of saints must travel to reach that meeting-place, makes very little difference.


Rachel Levy said...

I don't know, Michael, maybe it's because I'm a secondary social studies teacher (and I've taught pretty much every social studies course there is), but I think teaching history is important, although I suppose you're not really saying otherwise.

I do agree, however, that the way history is taught and the way history knowledge is assessed in public secondary schools is problematic--wrong, even.

I think that instead of having these huge, overwhelming survey courses (although US History covers a relatively short period of time), we should have "history electives" meaning students will take a certain number of history courses, but they'll get to choose them by topic or theme. History teachers could then teach history according to their own interests and areas of expertise, and also according to how history is supposed to be studied.

I also think you may have missed an important distinction in your post: between history and civics. Of course, history is the father of all social sciences (meaning if you study history, you study everything) and civics is essentially a history class (history of US government) but I do think we need to teach students the roles and duties of citizenship as well as teach them how our political system and government works. Within that, students will learn about court cases such as Marbury vs. Madison and Brown vs. Board of Education, and they should.

But I agree, we should be careful about what and how much exactly we expect students to remember.

Michael E. Lopez said...

That elective idea is really fascinating. I like it.

I'm basically in favor of anything that gives a more collegiate, adult feel to high school and treats the students with more dignity and respect. I think at 14 you shouldn't have to ask permission to go to the bathroom.

As for civics, mea culpa. I don't think about civics very much -- as an attorney it's sort of the water I'm swimming in, but I also don't have the high school background in it. We didn't have civics when I was in high school (maybe they do now). We had "Government", and the teacher we had took the class name as an excuse to make it into a political philosophy class that covered "government" very broadly: we learned about the functional differences and comparative advantages and disadvantages of dictatorships, oligarchies, anarchy, democracy, republics, theocracies, etc.

He discharged his "teach about American governance" required by law in the second week of school, as a prelude to the Republic unit (then he moved on to Rome and France which received equal time). This wasn't an honors class, either (yes, we had "Honors Government" -- ???).

It was also the only non-honors class I was in in which I can recall the non-honors students being engaged and interested in what was going on. The others were, frankly, depressing opportunities to get some outside reading done.

Finally, if students are learning Marbury in high school, it's not sticking. Exactly one of my college students at UCLA knew what I was talking about when I mentioned it (I asked). It didn't surprise me, by the way, which is why I asked. And frankly, as long as students understand that the law accepted and then rejected the principle of Separate but Equal, I couldn't care less if they remember the names Plessy and Brown.

Thanks as always for commenting! It's going to take time to build my readership back up to anywhere near its former glory, and I appreciate all the work you've done to assist me!

Rachel Levy said...

I use "civics" and "government" pretty much interchangeably, although certainly in different districts there are different versions of this. I've taught US Government, for example. Your high school course, however, sounds like it would fit the bill and should be able to fulfill any "civics" requirement.

I agree, there should be much more autonomy for social studies teachers and more options for high school students. I would think that if a teacher were really passionate about medieval history, for example, and had decent teaching practices/pedagogy, that to a certain extent students would become interested in such a course as well--like you and your classmates were in your high school government course. Many of the high school history courses as they are designed now are exercises in drudgery--for students and teachers alike.

Anonymous said...

I want to pair two quotes from your blog piece:

1. (A benefit of studying history: bluffs sometimes get called to disastrous result!)

2. I mean, really, how many people , let alone high school seniors, know about Marbury vs. Madison? That's at least as important a case, historically speaking. But no one worries that Johnny doesn't know about the establishment of judicial review just because they can't line up the case name with the concept. And that's in part because a lot of people don't care about Marbury the way they care about Brown.

Did you know that the version of Marbury you are advocating is now regarded as a myth -- that constitutional historians over the last seven years have demolished the idea that John Marshall in Marbury created judicial review? (See, e.g., Bruce Ackerman, The Failure of the Founding Fathers (2005).

Michael E. Lopez said...


That's not really quite what Ackerman says, first off.

You're somewhat overstating the case to say that the traditional view of Marbury is regarded -- full stop and without qualification -- as "myth", second off. It would be more accurate to say that the traditional view is regarded as an exaggeration of the case's novelty by a fair number of members of the legal and academic communities (the one that pops into my head right away is Sandy Levinson). There is substantial debate on this point, of which I would expect anyone citing to Bruce Ackerman and arguing about Marbury to be aware.

And third, just because Marshall didn't exercise some rare capacity for the formation of novel legalisms, just because you could easily argue that the concept of judicial review is implicit in the Constitution, doesn't mean that the case itself isn't where the inevitable manifestation occurred. And it doesn't mean that you shouldn't learn the case (to the extent that you're bothering to learn the case, like, say, if you were in law school) as the case to cite for judicial review. It most certainly is. And it is on that basis, as precedent (given that our legal system operates largely on the common law system), that it's perfectly justified to say that it's really important.

Indeed, one version of the very theory you're overstating -- the theory that Marbury isn't really revolutionary -- is exactly the sort of theory I'm advancing about Brown.

Anonymous said...

I ain't overstating nothing! The whole business of studying history is to upset everything we reflexively believe.

1. Ackerman in fact says that the current understanding of Marbury is wrong -- that it didn't invent judicial review, and that it was but a small part of an episode in which a rather pathetic John Marshall roared after abdicating the opportunity to assert the power of judicial review in Stuart v. Larid.

2. That Marbury invented judicial review is a myth, and nearly everything worthwhile published about the case since 2003 has attacked the it-invented-judicial-review claim. There is no real debate among people who study Marbury -- though most folks who teach the case aren't fully up on the literature, which says something no doubt about the insularity of our instructors, and the challenges that teachers, and our teachers' teachers, face more generally.

3. It's not that judicial review is implicit in the Constitution. Far from it. It's not that John Marshall didn't wish to be revolutionary; he just didn't have the courage or ability to do anything more than write some pretty words -- words that for all their sound and fury, signified nothing. His words merely echoed Hamilton's Federalist 78 -- in a world that had changed utterly following the election of 1800. The problem is not that judicial review was obvious at the start, but the contrary: Judicial review as we know it today didn't really get a major start until the 1880s.

4. Yeah, lots of people cite Marbury the way you suggest. But that doesn't make it right. And the job of educators is to bring unreflective practice into line with more current, sophisticated research and thinking. Marbury is a myth, and as such it is important to study it, much like an anthropologist might study the myths that other cultures believe, in order to learn what it says about us as a people. But that myth shouldn't be repeated as if it were true.