Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Foner on Teaching History

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 15, 2014

By way of Michael Lynch at Past in the Present, David Cutler’s interview with Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Foner offers some worthwhile thoughts on the value of studying history, and why we’re mostly teaching it wrong:


FonerWhere should high-school teachers place more emphasis on the skills of history—the literary aspect of it, or the actual content?
I respect what high-school teachers do enormously. They have a much harder job than we do at the college level. I think both are important. I’m strongly in favor of students knowing the facts of history, not just memorizing or having it drilled into their heads. I’m certainly against this testing mania that’s going on now where you can judge whether someone really understands history by their performance on a multiple-choice test.
Knowledge of the events of history is important, obviously, but also I think what I see in college students, that seems to be lacking at least when they come into college, is writing experience. In other words, being able to write that little essay with an argument. I see that they think, “OK, there are the facts of history and that’s it—what more is there to be said?” But of course, the very selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation. You can’t just separate fact and interpretation quite as simply as many people seem to think. I would love to see students get a little more experience in trying to write history, and trying to understand why historical interpretation changes over time.
Is an emphasis on rote memorization lessening student interest in history, and making the field seem less relevant to younger generations?
I think it probably is. There are many reasons for that. I think there’s a general tendency in education nowadays toward what you might call the pragmatic side of education, which is fine. The students need to have jobs eventually, no question about it. But education is not just a vocational enterprise—teaching people the skills that will enable them to get jobs–although that’s obviously part of it. [We]’re also teaching citizens. We try to teach people the skills that come along with studying history. The skills of evaluating evidence, of posing questions and answering them, of writing, of mobilizing information in order to make an argument. I think all of that is important in a democratic society if people are actually going to be active citizens. Teaching to the test does not really encourage emphasis on those aspects of the study of history.


Foner’s pretty much dead-on in his critique. I’ve had some great history teachers over the years, but not a one of them before college, and I honestly wouldn’t give two cents for the educating I got in history — world history, U.S. history, Texas history — all the way through high school. Foner’s correct, as well, about the centrality of writing to the practice of history. Writing about historical events, in one form or another, really does seem to be the key to the whole business, as it (hopefully) forces one to think and articulate lucidly about complex and contentious subjects.

I need to write more.



8 Responses

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  1. Bob Nelson said, on January 15, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Good stuff, Andy. Thanks for sharing. I especially liked his comment that teachers need to be passionate about their subject matter — not just history, I think, but all subjects. Having spent a number of years supervising student teachers for Central Michigan University, that was something that I found lacking in many soon-to-be teachers. Also his observations about teaching to the state test, which is about all we do any more (at least here in Michigan). If it’s not on the MEAP, it isn’t taught, which explains why U.S. History generally begins at the end of WWII and current HS students know little or nothing about the CW. It’s one of my pet peeves. Finally, his thoughts on writing. Remember the essay tests we endured back in HS and college in the 60s? They were really tough. Nowadays they’re largely multiple choice. Easier to grade!

    • Andy Hall said, on January 15, 2014 at 11:49 am

      I think the preference for multiple choice is due, in part, to a desire to avoid conflict over (inevitably) subjective grading of students’ writing. The difference between a B- and a C+ is clear if you’re dealing with X multiple-choice questions at Y points each, but much harder when dealing with a written narrative.

      Then again, assessments like the SAT now include a written portion (not always evaluated for college admissions), that may begin pushing an emphasis back on writing and all the skills that entails. Here’s hoping.

  2. H. E. Parmer said, on January 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    I was lucky enough to have had two good history teachers in high school, for courses in World History and Russian History, respectively. Both of them also emphasized research and writing skills — well, maybe not quite so much in the latter case, but he made up for that by being a dead ringer for Czar Nicholas II, even to the beard (a look I’m sure he cultivated).

    This was, of course, long before our totally not acting as fronts for epic grifts and union-busting “reformers” decided that success at regurgitating factoids was a reliable — in fact, the only worthwhile — measure of an education.

    No matter how much lip service we pay in public to the importance of critical thinking, outside of a very narrow range of subjects most people want their children indoctrinated, not taught to think for themselves or ask uncomfortable questions. Especially now, when the growing gap between comfortable mythology and harsh reality requires ever more intense feats of misdirection and constant denial of facts that are right in front of your face.

    I think real history, by which I mean trying to see the past in terms of the people who lived it, as part of a continuum of interrelated events and influences — while also being aware of your own biases and doing your best not to let them distort your understanding — is a threat to guardians of the status quo. (Not to mention a certain group with whom our host tussles from time to time.)

    That’s why they always try to sequester or co-opt historical knowledge, when they can’t erase it. And in our case, to make it so deadly dull and completely unrelated to their world that the vast majority of schoolchildren will have absolutely no interest in it as adults. You can argue over whether that’s a feature or a bug, but the effect is the same.

    Sorry for the extended rant, Andy. Besides being in my fumbling, unfocused way a lifelong history buff, I’m the son of a teacher, and married to a retired teacher, so these issues always get my blood up.

  3. Craig L said, on January 15, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I had a World History class in 7th grade, a Washington State History class in 9th grade and a U.S. History class in 11th grade. The 7th grade World History was taught by the music teacher whose General Music class I also took that year, which was for kids who couldn’t carry a tune or play an instrument. The music class involved memorizing the names of opera and other classical composers, their birth and death dates, and the names of the works for which they were famous. I was quite adept at flash memorization, so did well in both courses. The music teacher had been Batman actor Adam West’s college roommate.

    The state history course was taught by a guy who spent his weekends as part of the pit crew for a local drag racing team. He knew virtually nothing about state history and cared about it even less. We had a textbook and were assigned a chapter a week and the study questions at the end of each chapter, which did require reading the chapter closely enough to formulate an answer ranging from one sentence in length to occasionally a short paragraph.

    The U.S. History class was taught by my debate coach. He was the son of the principal of a rival high school. He often got migraines that would put him out of commission for two or three days at a time, but was otherwise an excellent teacher who would ask questions about our readings to generate class discussions that were often quite lively. The text consisted of extended excerpts from well established original sources. This often meant deciphering 18th and 19th century prose. The quizzes and exams were all essay. A standardized test I took that year placed me in the top 1% of students statewide in history. It’s quite possible to devise short answer, multiple-choice, true and false tests that assess critical thinking skills. Just remember to always pick the answer that’s the most debatable and the least cut and dried.

  4. Rob in CT said, on January 17, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    I agree with Foner as well. Luckily, I did have to write quite a bit in high school history (social studies, whatever), and that prepared me well for College. Where I majored in History, in fact.

    The most beloved teacher in my school was one of the social studies teachers. Mr. Potter. He was great. Enthusiastic with a sense of humor. I know this is a random tangent; bear with me. He later hung himself. Turns out he was gay, and I guess the false life (wife, 3 kids or somesuch) just got to be too much. Goddamnit. He was such a good teacher. He was also always stylishly dressed, and we picked up on it too: not a teacher thing, typically.

    Anyway, I’m not so much a hater of standardized tests – they have their place. You do need to check in on kids knowledge of basic facts. But it’s not enough to know that WWII started in 1939 (or, arguably, 1933!). When I helped a friend in college study about WWII, the first thing I said was “well, what do you know about WWI?” The whole point isn’t to learn this or that date. You need a mental chronology, and a sense of cause/effect. For that, you need to do more than memorize facts.

  5. Jimmy Dick said, on January 18, 2014 at 11:09 am

    I thought the Foner article was great and linked it to my fellow Saber & Scroll historical society schoolmates. Instead of the History Ph.D I am working on a doctorate in education because my goal is to teach history and I really think that degree is a better choice for my age and interests. Writing is crucial to the profession of history and that of teaching history. I work with both on ground and online students. Both types of systems are different, but writing remains an important element. It is absolutely critical for the online students. I am putting together a writing guide to help the students in that regard.

    Writing effectively is very important. The thinking process requires abstract thought, but in order to convey those thoughts one has to be able to organize them, edit them, and put them into a written form. The ability to write well has a direct connection to the ability to think critically. My students are somewhat skeptical of this, but then most of them have not taken a course on writing. Teaching writing is not my primary job, but then again teaching writing is part of my job and is for all instructors.

    As for the coaching situation, it is deplorable. I have no issues if someone who has a teaching certificate and a degree in English or any other subject wants to coach. I had an outstanding English teacher in high school who was also a wonderful girl’s basketball coach. The man did both extremely well. He loved sports and was even a batboy for the St. Louis Cardinals as a kid. But the man was an English teacher first, not a coach. Some of my history teachers coached football, but their degrees were in history. The coaching part was secondary. Our school district hired teachers first and then coaches. It made a huge difference because the kids in our school went on to college and earned their degrees. At least those that went to college did. I see so many other schools around me today that emphasized sports over academics and their students generally don’t go to college. The majority that do try it end up failing it because they don’t have the academic knowledge to pass general education courses.

    At one time here in Missouri teachers didn’t even need a BA or BS to teach. They had to have 90 hours and work towards the degree. That reflected the shortage of teachers. They have upped the standard now to a degree, but if someone has a four year degree and can pass the Praxis II test for content in a subject they are considered qualified to teach that subject. I think this is a huge mistake. English teachers should be required to have a degree in English, not athletics. That list goes on. Here in college instructors have to have a degree in the content they teach. That should be required in K-12. The best districts are the ones that do require that.

  6. Vicki Betts said, on January 21, 2014 at 8:36 am

    I had an absolutely superb high school honors history teacher, Bob Wyche, at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, in the early 70s. And yes, he was a Civil War enthusiast whose extracurricular sponsorship was our cannon crew who wore the farbiest outfits, as I now recognize. He took those selected boys on a tour of battlefields during the summer, and it’s about the only time I really wished I had been a boy. Mr. Wyche had very high expectations, and kids started looking forward to his class while still in junior high. For the American Revolution we debated the merits of independence, and he took the British side. For the Civil War he had the most impressive maps, and we walked into the classroom with period music playing. His battle descriptions were riveting. For Reconstruction we formed into Congressional subcommittees to reconstruct the South, and we had to research detailed proposals, with budgets. We even had our own Congressional Globe newsletter published. For the late 19th century we played a game where we went West onto the Plains with a certain amount of money and invested it in some form of agriculture. Then we would be told that the railroad transportation rates went up, or a blizzard killed our cattle. We were lucky to have enough money to go back East after that, but it showed the capriciousness of life and the gamble of farming/ranching and the anger at railroad monopolies. I don’t think we got past World War I. He told us to go out and do something we hadn’t done before, and I persuaded my family to drive out to see an antebellum home on the county’s edge. From there I went to a county historical society meeting, and from there I became a local historian and a Civil War historian, a history major with an honors thesis in local Civil War history. So not all high school history teachers were coaches, and some were outstanding. I wonder what American History looks like now in my old high school.
    Vicki Betts

  7. mike Klinger said, on January 24, 2014 at 10:52 am

    I think that history is much more interesting (hence learnable) when historic concepts and personalities are taught as opposed to dates and names

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