Why are we failing in history, science education?
This was written by Joy Hakim, a former teacher, journalist and now an author of award-winning textbooks in history and science.
By Joy Hakim
I keep a list. The story out of Virginia—that cities and hamlets around the state recently spent school funds on a book for 4th graders with an agenda that most Americans reject–-is the latest entry into what is becoming a catalog of schoolbook outrages. The Washington Post broke that story on Oct. 20th. Almost immediately some school districts began pulling the book from classrooms.
A few days later the New York Times told us that the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 48th, out of 133 developed nations, in the quality of math and science instruction. “48th is not a good place,” said the Times.
A month earlier, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported that the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has postponed making a U.S. history test a requirement for high school graduation.
“The move will result in continued marginalization of the discipline,” said the Gazette.
And this despite the commonwealth’s education standards that “provide for instruction in at least the major principles of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.”
So what’s going on? Why, in a world where almost everyone understands that a solid education is a key to personal success, are we failing so many of our children in the core subjects of history and science? Why is much of our adult population scientifically illiterate at a time when the ideas of science underlie the contemporary world? How, in a nation built on the concept of self-government, can we stop teaching our founding ideas?
And how did we get from a nation that led the world in mass education, to where we are today, limping along in 48th place?
It’s a story that has been told a number of times, but especially well by Diane Ravitch in an article called “Tot Sociology;” by Frances Fitzgerald in a book titled “America Revised;” and by others, especially Paul Gagnon in a series of classic Atlantic Monthly articles.
As they document the tale, it was decades ago that we gave up teaching history as an idea-centered discipline played out by a succession of characters—heroes and villains—whose actions led to results that can be analyzed. That kind of story-based history is engaging. We replaced it with litanies of facts.
As for science, in the 20th century, with the advent of the world-changing physics of relativity and quantum theory, we gave science to the scientists. We accepted what C.P. Snow called “two cultures;” disconnecting science and the arts. There was no reason to separate them. It shouldn’t have happened. Understanding the ideas behind today’s incredibly exciting sciences is something all of us can do. But to make science a true liberal arts subject means telling its stories, and science history is on the curriculum in only one state. So most of our “educated” population opts out.
For a variety of reasons, none good, many of our schools have marginalized the subjects that make you think, the subjects that provide intellectual stretching. History and science—taught as idea-based subjects—give you something to think about. Turning them into rote memorization disciplines gives you a headache.
For me there are two issues here: It’s newspapers that still keep informing us—in these cases about shabby books and outcomes. So far the Internet has not provided the financing necessary for investigative journalism. If we lose our great newspapers can we sustain our democracy? Jefferson didn’t think so.
He said, “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Second issue: We can’t afford to ignore the importance of schoolbooks. I write them and I’ve spent a lot of time considering those that make it into classrooms. I’m convinced that, even in the worst inner-city scenario, there are some children who, given good books, will learn. Standard textbooks are rarely good books.
This is a national tragedy. It’s also a story of greed.
A few big publishers control the schoolbook market, which means the adoption process, and what and how our children are taught. Those businesses also control testing and often professional development. They have led us astray with an agenda that keeps classics of learning, which are usually found in bookstores, out of classrooms.
When I talk to teachers and to children (which I often do), mostly I hear tales of frustration with a system that ignores what these major participants have to say.
What we are doing to ourselves and to our children is tragic. It doesn’t have to happen.
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| October 28, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, History, Science | Tags: history, history textbooks, joy hakim, science, science textbooks, textbook adoption, textbooks, virginia textbooks
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