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Posted at 10:09 AM ET, 02/12/2010

North Carolina may cut a year of high school history

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, believed to be the world’s only English-language quarterly review for history academic papers by high school students.

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.

Educator Kieran Egan quotes Bertrand Russell as saying: "The first task of education is to destroy the tyranny of the local and immediate over the child’s imagination."

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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By Valerie Strauss  | February 12, 2010; 10:09 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  history  
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Its always been that way down here and its terrible. Juniors here are supposed to learn from the Civil War to the present and a unit on the Constitution is supposed to be tacked on. So, realistically, after 8th grade, kids don't get exposed to 1/2 of US History, and even if they were mature enough to learn the conceptual building blocks in middle school, how many rmemeber them three years later? And remember, instruction stops and testing takes over in March, so actually students just get six months of high school US History.

Posted by: johnt4853 | February 12, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Almost forgot.

We were given a curriculum pacing guide from a district at the forefront of “teacher quality.” Sophomores should master: colonialism; the causes and effects of World War I; the causes and the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution; the causes and effects of the Depression; the causes and effects of World War II; the causes and effects of the Cold War; post-war independence and national movements; trench warfare, the Blitzkrieg, the Russian front in World War II, genocide, the Korean and Vietnam Wars as case studies of the Cold War; and key leaders in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The curriculum pacing guide allotted two to three weeks to cover that material.

Posted by: johnt4853 | February 12, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for writing this article. The decision makers behind this insanity, might you know their backgrounds? Surely, not a history buff among them. If anything, history ought to be expanded, perhaps in an interdisciplinary approach with an emphasis on scientific/medical discoveries and advances and the movements that inspired such. Now, that is interesting stuff!! Real stories (include writings in first person), not snippets. Kids need to read more stuff that helps to develop logical thought.

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 12, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

"If the student (and the teacher) has never read The Federalist Papers . . . "

That's the main problem with teaching history at whatever grade. I have been substituting in middle and high schools, and every time I replace a history teacher I have noticed that the teacher is apparently a coach. The room may have one or two posters about history, but there are always a lot of sports photos and sports trophies, and in the one case when the teacher only took the morning off for an appointment, he showed up carrying all his materials in a team duffel bag.

The stereotype of the football coach teaching history because all he has to do is have the students read the chapter and then answer the questions at the end may not be true in every case, but it is true in all too many cases.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 12, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

The title of this article is misleading. North Carolina is not deleting a year of U.S. History just changing the course to cover just the years from Reconstruction to the present. What's wrong with that? In the 10th grade Civics & Economics course they will gain knowledge of our Constitution and government. That in itself will become a bridge upon their knowledge of early American history from middle school to the more relevant application of what it means to be a productive American citizen that they will receive in high school.

As a teacher in North Carolina, licensed to teach social studies at the middle and high school level, I am not too concerned with this change to the curriculum. My concern with the proposed curriculum is the fact that students will be exposed less to the geography, culture and history of other countries. It's great to understand your own country's culture and history, but failing to educate our youth about other countries will do them a disservice in today's global society.

Posted by: gauged34 | February 13, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

So Jessica Leight is the exception and not the rule. And, if a student is not published in your magazine, what about them?

Posted by: ericpollock | February 13, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Howard County Maryland, generally regarded as one of the top education systems in the US has used that placement for the teaching of American History for over 15 years. The kids get The first half of US history in 8th grade and the 2nd half in high school. This allows more depth in study for each period, with the more relevant history being done when the child is older. They get an entire year of US government which explores the constitution and details of our government. It is a better way of doing US history than the way it was done in my youth where you always started with the explorers and ended around World War I. By the way I was born after World War II but never got to learn about it in history.

Posted by: rit21042 | February 15, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Among academic historians, there is a belief that everyone has about a 20-year gap in his or her historical knowledge. This represents the segment of history that the teachers don't mention because they lived through it and don't consider it "history." (When a relative began teaching in mid-life, she was shocked at the events in her students' history books that she personally remembered.) When I substituted for an English teacher recently, the class was reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I had to explain why the Ewells were so angered by Finch's suggestion that Mayella Ewell had been sexually attracted to Tom Robinson.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 15, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

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