From the Letters to the Editor column of the February 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Research and High School Students

Jason Knoll, February 2010

Editor's Note: Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should ideally be brief and should be sent to Letters to the Editor (or mailed to Letters to the Editor, Perspectives on History, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889) along with full contact information. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters' contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.

To the Editor:

In the December 2009 issue, Caroline Walker Bynum completely demeaned high school history teachers. She claimed that high school history students do not really “do research” because they basically cut-and-paste, and she argued that because incoming undergraduates don’t know much beyond facts, college instructors must teach “critical thinking” and “introduce the very concept of an expert opinion or a primary source.” As a high school history teacher, I take great offense at these gross generalizations.

First, here at my high school, we place a heavy emphasis on analyzing primary sources. We teach the students the difference between primary and secondary sources, how to look for bias or point of view within the sources, and how to use the sources to write an essay. Students also learn about change and continuity throughout history. We do not merely teach “facts.”

Second, when I have my students conduct research, I do not just let them pick a topic and go to it. We discuss how to form a research question, how to look for resources, how to integrate quotes, and how to cite sources. During this semester-long process, I also take them to the archives and library at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.

Third, apparently Bynum believes that it is only high school students who cut-and-paste from Google. I can assure her that college students do it as well. Most students are aware, however, that all an instructor needs to do is type a phrase into Google, and if a student got that phrase from a website, it will appear as a search result.

Finally, I hope that this attitude of the superiority of college instructors over high school teachers does not pervade the AHA. If anything, we need to work more closely together to ensure that students at all levels obtain the skills necessary to think like historians.

—Jason Knoll
Verona Area High School