North Carolina may cut a year of high school history
By Will Fitzhugh
North Carolina, like Maryland before it, may deal with the difficulty history teachers have in "covering" United States History in one year in high school, by moving the first year (1620-1877) down to the middle school level. This will make it likely that our high school graduates will now be even more ignorant of our nation’s founding and early history.
One argument they advance is that it will make our history "more relevant" to their students because it will be "closer" to their own lives.
The logical end of this approach will be, I suppose, to constrict the teaching of U.S. history to the latest results for American Idol.
This is just one more egregious consequence of the flight from academic knowledge in our schools.
One of the authors published in The Concord Review wrote more than 13,000 words on Anne Hutchinson, who lived and died more than two centuries before 1877. That public high school student (who later graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and won a Rhodes Scholarship) read enough about Anne Hutchinson so that her life became relevant enough to the student to let her write a long, serious term paper about her.
For students who don’t read history, and don’t know any history from any other source, of course anything that happened "back then" seems not too relevant to their own lives, whether it is or not.
It is the job of the history teacher to encourage and require students to learn enough history so that what happened in the past is understood to be relevant, whether it is Roman law, or Greek philosophy, or the Han Dynasty, or the Glorious Revolution or our own.
If the student (and the teacher) has never read The Federalist Papers, then the whole process by which we formed a strong constitutional government will remain something of a mystery to them, and may indeed seem to be irrelevant to their own lives.
Now, the folks in North Carolina are not considering completely abandoning their high school history students to American Idol or to only those things that are local and immediate in North Carolina. After all, President Rutherford B. Hayes rarely appears on either local TV or MTV, so it will be a job for teachers to make Rutherfraud seem relevant to their lives. Students will indeed have to learn something about the 1870s and even the 1860s, perhaps, before that time will come to seem at all connected to their own.
But the task of academic work is not to appeal to a student’s comfortable confinement to his or her own town, friends, school, and historical time.
Academic work, most especially history, opens the student to the wonderful and terrible events and the notable human beings of the ages. To confine them to what is relevant to them before they do academic work is to attempt to shrink their awareness of the world to an unforgivable degree.
North Carolina has not done that, of course. If they had make an effort to teach United States history in two years, or perhaps, if they decide to allow only one year in high school, many will feel that they should have chosen Year One, instead of starting with Rutherford B. Hayes. These are curricular arguments worth having.
But in no case should educators be justified in supporting academic work that requires less effort on the part of students to understand what is different from them, whether it is Cepheid variable stars, or Chinese characters, or the basics of molecular biology, or calculus, or the proceedings of an American meeting in Philadelphia in 1787.
Our job as educators is to open the whole world of learning to them, to see that they make serious efforts in it, and not to allow them to confine themselves to the ignorance with which they arrive into our care.
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| February 12, 2010; 10:09 AM ET
Categories: History | Tags: history
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