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Teaching History Is Hard

Bunk Executive Director Ed Ayers on the importance of teaching students to think for themselves.

The new report from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) suggests that we have lost ground over the last decade in connecting America’s young people with their history. The debates triggered by the results, including whether they measure anything meaningful about historical understanding, give us a chance to think about what history teaching is and why it’s so hard.

Many have tried to make history education engaging and meaningful, relying on every tool from radio to role-playing. In recent decades, a major goal has been to show students how to “think like a historian,” how to set aside the prejudices of the present, to examine and corroborate evidence, to cite authorities, and to produce written historical arguments. This proves to be as hard as it sounds. In fact, an influential book refers to thinking historically as an “unnatural act,” a form of mental gymnastics to which students have to be carefully introduced.

This inquiry-based history has driven decades of research into the cognition of learning and shaped teacher education. Libraries, archives, and education companies have generated mountains of digitized primary sources for students to examine and analyze. The document-based model has shaped Advanced Placement courses, the Common Core, and policies supported by the National Council for Social Studies.

Given this energy and progress, then, why are we still worrying that American students do not know their own history? The failure is in part by choice: We are teaching less American history, displacing it to make room for reading and mathematical literacy. History taught in elementary schools often appears as “non-fiction, non-literary informational texts” to provide practice for reading skills and background for “dress-up days” in which youngsters portray famous people from the past. We should not be surprised that low investments in history education bring low returns.

In many high schools, harried teachers, often with other responsibilities as coaches or teachers of other subjects, feel they have little choice but to teach from the textbooks and to “cover the material” by lecturing to note-taking students who have little chance to question or discuss. In perhaps three-quarters of the nation’s schools, a leading scholar of history education suggests, history is still taught this way, as it has been for generations, in ways that makes students think that history is a turgid list of names and dates.

Even though waves of reformers have urged history teachers to emulate the techniques and standards of history writers, the gap between high school history and the history produced by academic historians has in fact grown steadily wider. Historical scholarship has been flourishing for the last half century, energized by the inclusion of new subjects and methods. The history of African Americans and other ethnicities, of women and gender, of culture and economics — all have been and still are producing groundbreaking work, even as traditional topics such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II remain topics of vital scholarship. Contrary to stereotype, many of the books are compelling, even exciting. Historians challenge and revise one another not because they carry hidden “opinions” and “biases,” as students are taught, but because they learn new things from new evidence or from revisiting familiar evidence with new questions.

Little of this exciting work reaches high school students. Freshmen in college, even those coming from excellent secondary schools, often have no idea that historians discover new knowledge every day. Most have never read, or even know of, scholarship that has remade the ways we think about slavery, say, or the American environment. They imagine that “history” is the highly processed material in their textbooks, vetted by state boards and corporate focus groups so that they challenge no one, or perhaps a “people’s history” that inverts the heroes. No wonder students assume that history is fixed and final, and that their job is to memorize it. No wonder they think history is boring and useless. And no wonder they rarely do well on tests that measure something they care little about.

History is hard to teach. It is not a bounded field of knowledge that can be conveyed in stages and steps. It does not operate by rules or predictable patterns. It cannot be segmented into separate elements without making it die. The keys to understanding the past are context, contingency, cause, change, and consequence — living in motion — but standardized textbooks and testing kill history to dissect it. That there are so many history teachers who find ways to inspire their students despite such obstacles testifies to the idealism, intelligence, and commitment of the people drawn to this work.

History is hard to teach, too, not because it is irrelevant but because it hits so close to things young people care and worry deeply about: their ethnic, gender, and national identities, the role of America in the world, inequality and injustice in the past and present, the sources of promise and despair in our society. History is dangerous to teach and so we have tried to tame it through narratives of progress and blandly balanced portrayals of our unbalanced past. Doing so, we drain history of the human drama that makes it worth studying in the first place.

History has its revenge. Dulled and anesthetized in school, history proliferates everywhere else. History asserts itself in popular film and streaming series, in video games and television parodies in which celebrities become drunk to reenact slurred versions of textbook history, in the most acclaimed Broadway show of recent decades and in the most heavily visited museum in Washington. Young people love history, just not history as it is forced upon them.

The unruly history that animates American culture today radiates through Bunk, a site sarcastically named after Henry Ford’s sarcastic comment that “history is more or less bunk.” The only history that matters, Ford proclaimed, is “the history we make today.” As it turns out, Americans do “make” history every day. Our online world is filled with history of all kinds, coming from all kinds of sources, written to attract and engage readers. Bunk, a part of the New American History initiative I lead, curates and connects that ceaseless, colorful, and noisy profusion, revealing history as a living presence in students’ daily lives. Growing every day, Bunk excerpts and links to nearly five thousand articles, all searchable, ranging from newspapers of record and polished magazine pieces to passionate and informed blog entries.

Bunk weaves together history presented as map and podcast, as graphic novel and video, as light humor and bitter criticism. It juxtaposes arguments from left, center, and right, tagged so that each relates — often in surprising ways — to other interpretations. The editors of Bunk read each piece to ensure that it deals with evidence and opponents responsibly, showing that those who make claims on the past must honor the actual historical record.

Rather than teaching students to think like historians, Bunk encourages young people to think for themselves, to think like people who will confront history every day for the rest of their lives. Outside of a standardized exam, history will never come to them as a suite of prepared documents. They will have to learn to discern the purpose between the lines, to see that historical claims come in photographs and slogans, on maps and graphs, on chyrons and bumper stickers.

Bunk gives students a glimpse of why history matters, how it is used every day, how it takes many forms. It represents the full cast of people who have lived in what is now the United States and it embraces students of all backgrounds. It reveals the force of history in current events. In short, Bunk rests on the simple assumption that students will engage with what interests them and that when they do, they will learn what history is and why it matters. Perhaps they will even do better on national tests.