Wondering about the Other 75% of History Education

This is the first year in a while that I haven’t been in front of a classroom or leading a discussion section (how fast does one become rusty at teaching?). Still, I find myself thinking a lot about history education. More and more, largely because of the work I am doing, I find myself considering the massive chunk of history instruction that happens before a student even steps on a college campus.

Most students enter college with about 13 years (counting kindergarten) of education behind them. Assuming that these college students hope to graduate in around four years, college instructors are only directly involved in roughly the last 25% of a student’s formal education. By the time they reach us in United States History 101, most of a students’ habits, inclinations, and opinions about history have been set. Think about how many subjects you love (or hate) based on an experience in high school or even the preceding horror show of middle school. Honestly, my college chemistry instructor did not have a chance against that baggage.

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we hope students get out of their experiences in college; this discussion is essential. Still, it’s worth considering what we want students to get out of the other 75% of their chances to be exposed to history.

Thinking about education holistically is a major goal of initiatives like Common Core or the Next Generation Science Standards. Instead of students gathering a patchwork of concepts over 13 years, policymakers hope these plans can bring a coherence to the instruction of language arts, math, and science.

Realistically, there won’t be a similar effort to standardize social studies for a long time if ever. Think about all the controversy that has come with Common Core. Now picture what would happen if, instead of grammar and subtraction, there were a proposed curriculum guides for teaching the Revolution, slavery, or the New Deal similarly across the 50 states. We saw a taste of what would happen with the battle over AP History reform.

It’s also questionable if a standardization of curriculum for social studies is even desirable. I for one don’t think there is Tennessee focused version of chemistry and a Minnesota focused version of chemistry. On the other hand, someone from Minnesota should probably know something about Minnesotan history, or least more than someone from Tennessee. In specifically this, I agree with the designers of Texas social studies curriculum. A year focused on local history doesn’t sound like a bad idea. On what should be covered or emphasized in that year… well, the agreement might end.

The need for content flexibility, or least political reality of it, means our college students come with a range of historical content preparation. This is true even excluding the many students that received their educations outside the United States.

Honestly, I think we mostly consider this range of experience a liability. When we discuss students’ prior education, it’s mostly to complain about the perceived lack of it.

I wish over the last few years I had asked more substantial questions about my students primary and secondary history education. I mean more than just an obligatory opening day question. Perhaps, it would have been worthwhile to have students map out their prior social studies education as a low stakes assignment. What units stuck out in their brains from elementary? What areas of the globe did they learn about in high school? What was the hardest history assignment they ever got?

Ideally, what skills or knowledge do we want college freshmen to enter the college history classroom with? Any real answer to this question would be long and complex. However, this is a blog post rather than reality, so I will point to three skills that I believe are paramount:

  • A basic understanding of the narrative of one period of history or one nation’s history– I honestly don’t care too much which period or nation it is (being a 19th century Americanist, I am biased in a certain direction). I think it’s far easier to build anything once there is a foundation. Knowing a narrative of period like the Civil War Era, it is possible to build conceptual bridges to the Civil Rights movement or back to the Revolution. Decently know the history of Mexico? Then concepts like slavery, revolution, or change over time are not foreign to you. There’s always more history to learn, but it’s easier add to a pile of knowledge than start one from scratch.
  • The ability to write a cogent essay with evidence– This may seem like the prerogative of the language arts. I for one have no interest in trading places our academic doing God’s work in grading freshman composition essays. However, this is another case of the setting of the foundation being the hardest part of education (probably not in the actual construction of buildings).
  • A basic curiosity about the human past– A college classroom is the last shot to convince someone that history isn’t dates and drudgery. Often that means unraveling the assumptions of 13 years in one semester. Sometimes this miracle happens. However, like the other two skills, its easier to add to something than create a new mentality. Someone who enjoys learning the past already has an invaluable intrinsic motivation to learn more. This doesn’t mean they will always be a good student, but it does mean they won’t be purely motivated by grades or if the instructor exerting some charismatic authority. I don’t think we need more historians. What we do need is a populace who finds history compelling.

Those are my desired hat-trick of skills for the ideal college freshman starting a history class. Those are the skills I will be wondering about how to foster at every level of education this year.

I don’t think this is a useless exercise. Considering that seemingly every social studies teacher in the United States has been a student in the college history classroom, it’s worth considering how to create if not a uniform history curriculum, at least a perspective that draws on all 17 years of education.

What are your dream skills for a student entering college? I am very much interested in hearing from secondary or primary teachers about how they see these issues.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *