"Teach These Boys and Girls Nothing but Facts": History in the Public Schools
Christopher L. Doyle, April 2002
I knew within one week that the transition from being a college history professor to a public high school "social studies" teacher would prove rockier than anticipated. For a class of 14-year-old students of Western Civilization, I had crafted an introduction meant to spark interest, teach about the historian's trade, caution against projecting modern values onto the past, and explore details of early modern family life that textbooks invariably omit. In what could have been a brief honeymoon with high school teaching—the interlude between opening day and Labor Day weekend—I found myself anxiously justifying my methods and sources to three irate parents, the principal, and my teaching partner, an English teacher. A story of Little Red Riding Hood proved the culprit. It had provoked a response that revealed deep differences in how different groups involved with secondary education view the study of history. An education culture encompassing state standards boards, testing corporations, administrators, teachers, and parents continues to define history largely as the mastery of a set of facts and not as creative analysis and interpretation of the historical evidence.
My Little Red Riding Hood crisis developed because I wanted students to examine the story as historians. On the first day of class, they read a version of the tale that appears in Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre, in which Granny and "Red" (she has no red hood) both end up victims of the wolf. Beforehand, I had them examine a fable of more recent origin, "The Little Engine That Could." Many of them knew that story from their own childhoods, and they listed on the blackboard what they considered the yarn's morals: persevere, think optimistically, help others. They had more difficulty seeing positive lessons in the demise of Red and Granny. I framed a question, echoing Darnton, that we would pursue over the next week: Assuming the French peasants who told their children this story were not deviant parents, why did they consider it acceptable, and maybe important, for young ears? I had compiled a set of sources that I hoped would provide answers. These included the film The Return of Martin Guerre, demographic statistics gleaned from Pierre Goubert's The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century, the description of medieval village life by Frances and Joseph Gies, and a nutritional analysis of a typical peasant's diet.1 Although I had anticipated that some students would find the material daunting, I was surprised to learn instead that it was their parents who objected to the way I used the story of Red Riding Hood.
Teaching necessitates a series of imagined relationships, and, in the public education culture, parents often conceive of their children's history class as reflections of their own experience—perhaps with computers thrown in. And here I was, dramatically departing from the beaten path. By the third day of school, one mother had called to ask the relevance of Red Riding Hood, a father complained to the principal about
sexual innuendo in the tale, and another asked me to "stick to facts, not stories." On the positive side, the calls indicated that parents discussed schoolwork with their children, and they allowed me to make a case for historical inquiry. Ultimately, the parents seemed somewhat mollified, and my principal gave wholehearted support for the lesson. Still, one of the callers concluded our conversation with the wary observation that "I never did anything like this in school." When I was planning the lesson, I had mistakenly considered only how an imagined audience of students would react and how I would assist them in deriving meaning from the sources. Anyone trying to reorder history instruction in public schools must also anticipate, and engage, an audience of parents suspicious of reform that differs from how they studied the past by focusing on "facts" about elites, political developments, and wars.
It may be a crucial moment for reformers to speak out on how public education handles history. The system has become increasingly standardized and relies on "mastery" testing as the tool of choice for measuring teacher and student performance. Connecticut, where I taught, uses objectives derived from the National History Standards. Laudably, both state and national protocols proclaim cultivation of "historical thinking" skills as essential. Connecticut mandates that, beginning in grade 9, students should "formulate historical hypotheses," and "gather, analyze, and reconcile historical information, including contradictory data, from primary and secondary sources to support or reject hypotheses." State standards also suggest some emphasis on social history, as they require students to "interpret oral traditions and legends as 'histories.'"2 Such language appears to make space for Red Riding Hood in a history lesson.
Nevertheless, the trend to accountability holds ambivalent messages about the meaning and significance of history. Like many other states, Connecticut's standards dilute history by placing it in a "social studies" milieu with geography, economics, civics, and "the social sciences and humanities." Similarly, the state measures competency through a "Connecticut Academic Performance Test Interdisciplinary Assessment" in which history often figures incidentally or not at all, taking a back seat to rhetoric, "civics," or economics. The social studies standards describe, in 21 pages, "content" areas in history and related topics (as compared with 2 pages on "historical thinking"). These "content" standards proclaim that by the end of grade 8, students should possess "in-depth understanding" of at least 17 wide-ranging historical events, including the American Revolution, "the Black Death," and "the Pequot War."3 Professional historians, humble about the limits of their own "in-depth understanding" even in their fields of expertise, might wince at the futility of such a charge. Secondary teachers can perceive in the standards and tests a demand for what gets referred to in department meetings as "coverage": immersing students in countless facts, often tangential to history, so sweeping in scope as to defy logic. The learning experiences that result from such "coverage" conform to how my students' parents understand history.
Tests to certify history teachers also reinforce fixations on superficial factual recall. Connecticut requires candidates for "history and social studies" teaching credentials to pass an examination, developed by Educational Testing Service, called "Praxis II—Social Studies: Content Knowledge (0081)." The exam complements state licensing practice by squeezing history under a "social studies" umbrella with geography, economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and political science. Test 0081 purports "to determine whether an examinee has the knowledge and skills necessary for a beginning teacher of social studies in a secondary school." It does so by asking 130 multiple-choice questions over a two-hour test. Formulators claim the test demands "higher-order thinking" and "interpreting" sources, but they allocate little time for contemplation; respondents cannot devote even 60 seconds to each question if they intend to finish.4 The test implies that one can teach history without much education in the subject and that recall of a broad base of disjointed facts constitutes the ultimate educational outcome.
Like nearly every state, Connecticut does not require a degree in history to teach the subject. Although in 1994 the state did insist on a minimum of 12 undergraduate credits in history for new "history and social studies" teachers, it offers no incentive for further professional development in the discipline. In fact, current practice discourages teachers from historical study. In public schools, positions of authority and higher pay demand advanced course work in pedagogy or educational administration. Young teachers embarking on master's degrees usually opt for pedagogy as the better means to further their careers. Piling evening graduate study atop daytime teaching, overworked teachers also consider a master's in education the easiest degree alternative and surest guarantor against stress. Similarly, ongoing professional development required to maintain certification steers teachers away from history and directs them to enhance skills in computer technology and learning theory.5 It requires exceptional dedication for teachers of "social studies" to become historians.
In sum, the system pushes hard a belief that understanding history essentially means recalling facts, and it does not seek to produce teachers who do otherwise. Almost 150 years ago, Charles Dickens satirized such an approach by creating Thomas Gradgrind, whose school would "teach . . . nothing but facts," and the inquisitorial pedagogue Mr. M'Choakumchild—himself a product of a fact "factory" where he had "answered volumes of head-breaking questions" on a dizzying variety of subjects. M'Choakumchild's broad, superficial training and obsession with facts come through in modern standards, bereft of Dickens's humor, and we should reconsider this approach. I invoke Hard Times neither to recapitulate the debate over teaching "content" over "process" nor as a general critique of high school educators, but to borrow from Dickens's advice: "If we only prescribed less, 'how infinitely better [w]e might have taught much more!'"6
Deemphasizing rote memorization would stimulate the notion that history involves artistic creativity, and it may well help cool roiling debates over which facts to emphasize and which stories to tell.7 But such reform cannot occur if teachers feel (or are made to feel) insecure about their own skills as historians and therefore seek out and take solace in mandates for facts.
The culture would have to change on several fronts. Public school epistemology should abandon "social studies" and liberate history as a distinct discipline. Teacher certification should reflect this new status by mandating a BA degree in the subject for prospective high school history teachers. To foster professional development in history, certification should grant "master educator" status to teachers attaining advanced degrees and skills within their discipline. Pay scales should compensate "master educators" sufficiently to sway young teachers toward advanced degrees in history. Standards and tests, both for students and teachers, should focus on analytical skills and jettison their attachment to factual recall. Alternate routes to teacher certification should help lure PhDs in history into public education. If a large cadre of well-trained historians taught in public education, perhaps society would feel less anxious to hold them accountable to "facts."
As for Red Riding Hood, the discussion initially left my firstyear students confused. But after watching Martin Guerre, most understood why French peasants might caution children about speaking to strangers who seemed troublingly enigmatic to a society lacking modern means to verify the identities of people. Studying the peasantry's demographic profile, nearly all my students expressed shock by how capricious life was. The revelation led them to ascribe significance to "Red Riding Hood" as preparing peasant children for a reality in which death was pervasive and random. A few students went so far as to speculate about connections between the peasants' meager diet and the story's many references to food and eating. The majority enjoyed piecing data together and arguing over its importance. Many rethought initial judgments that denigrated the peasants as "weird," they expressed empathy for the peasantry, and they engaged in hypothesizing and argumentation. While puzzling over Red Riding Hood may not afford students, teachers, parents, or test makers the security that comes from rote memorization, I believe public schools can teach much more history by worrying much less about facts.
—Christopher Doyle is assistant professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado. His scholarship explores the social and legal history of Revolutionary-era Virginia. In 1999–2000, he taught at Shepaug Valley High School in Washington, Connecticut. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
1. Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1984), "Riding Hood" 9–10, for related analysis see chapter one; The Little Engine that Could, retold by Watty Piper from the Pony Engine, by Mabel C. Bragg (New York, 1930); Pierre Goubert, The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century, translated by Ian Patterson (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), esp. chapter four; Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Life in a Medieval Village (New York, 1990), my students read chapter five; evaluation of peasant diet drawn from Merry E. Weisner, et al., eds., Discovering the Western Past, a Look at the Evidence, vol. 2 (Boston and New York, 1997), 84–86, 91.
2. Social Studies Curriculum Framework, Connecticut State Department of Education, Division of Teaching and Learning (Hartford, 1998), 147. National History Standards at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards/thinking5-12.html.
5. On history requirements for high school teacher certification see "State of Connecticut, Regulation of State Board of Education," sec.10-145d-428, amended August 6, 1998, 39. I applied for "Continuing Education Units" (CEUs) upon committing to give a paper at an academic conference and requested credit based on an estimated 100 hours of scholarship to complete the essay. However, the standards allowed credit only for the eight hours I would spend attending the conference. Connecticut CEU standards do not provide meaningful reward for teachers engaged in academic research.
6. Neither is this essay meant as a particular indictment of public history education in Connecticut, which stands superior in its standards to many other states. Thanks to Daniel W. Gregg, Social Studies Consultant, Connecticut Department of Education, who clarified the rationale behind Connecticut's standards, placed them in comparative context, and discussed upcoming revisions, telephone interview, November 20, 2000.
7. Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn document controversy over setting the National History Standards. See History on Trial, Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York, 1999). Similar divisiveness extends down to local boards of education.