Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Other Reasons Why History Textbooks Are Broken

I recently finished History on Trial and am currently working my way through Lies My Teacher Told Me (10th anniversary edition, which doesn't seem to be available on Amazon). These are really good books for anyone who is interested in primary school curricula, history, the culture war, etc. I was pleasantly surprised by Lies; I'd expected a laundry-list of corrections or anecdotes but it actually contains a very well developed discussion of select themes like heroification and the absence of racism in primary school texts. Both books posit similar reasons for why history books are, on the whole, lame, boring, inaccurate, etc: Patriotism, a desire not to offend by commission, a desire not to offend by omission. These combined influences reduce textbooks to little more than bland statements and collections of fact. I think that they're pretty much on the mark as far as they go. But I think they've certainly overlooked one, and possibly two, additional causes which are certainly at work as well. The history that both of these texts would have taught is complex and contingent; this undoubtedly is a much truer reflection of the actual nature of history. But here's a question: How do you test kids on contingent history? It seems, IMHO, that one of the reasons that history books have been reduced to lists of facts is that its easier to test kids using this model. Lists of facts translate easily to multiple-choice, fill in the blank, true/false tests. These types of tests are easy to grade, either the student marked the correct answer or they didn't, and you can have a scantron machine do the grading for you. The alternative suggested by both of these books would require a lot more time and effort on the teacher's part. Complex and contingent history cannot, almost by definition, be reduced to a multiple-choice exam. In this sort of scenario you ask students to make a fact-supported argument which involves, in the least, short answer questions if not full-blown essays. Such types of answers are time-consuming to grade. I suspect that they also lead to a good deal of acrimony between students and teachers, since the grading of such questions is subjective (to some degree). If the common perception of teachers as already overworked and underpaid is correct then it requires a great deal of altruism on their part to subject themselves to additional work and controversy. Which segues into the next cause, the one I'm not so certain about. Teaching history as something other than a list of facts requires teachers to have a really good grasp of the subject. Both History on Trial and Lies talk about all sorts of really cool (relatively speaking) projects that teachers could have their students do; a good one from Lies is to perform historiographic analysis of the representations of John Brown. But in order to organize a project or lead a discussion around a topic like that you really have to be on the ball when it comes to history. I'm not convinced that the average history teacher is up to the task. Personally I tend to chalk that one up to the whole "teacher pay" issue. I'm not trying to imply that "those who can't, teach", but at the same time you'd get a whole lot more of "those who can" if teachers were paid market rates for the level of expertise that their jobs require. I'm relatively certain that I could teach basic computer science or math to high school kids; I've certainly thought about teaching in the past. But really, it hardly makes any sense to even consider going down that road when I can make a metric buttload more as a traveling engineer, and all that job really requires is plugging things in, installing drivers, and making nice to the customer. So yeah, really good books, but I'd really like to see their take on the issues I've raised above.

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