Op Ed/ Worcester Telegram & Gazette
July 14, 2011


By Bill Schechter

Do we need more history instruction in our schools? Yes. Is history the most important subject students can study? Please forgive this history teacher if he thinks so.

As those who know me will attest, I live and breathe history. If there is a historical marker in the highway, my wife has to beg me to keep going and not stop to read it. I also had the privilege of teaching the subject for 35 years at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, and organized mural projects, magazines, and innumerable field trips to deepen student interest in the past.

It’s because I love history that I oppose adding it to the state MCAS exam lineup.

True, any piece on this subject has to acknowledge historical literacy is low in this country. A recent national report card has described the depth of this ignorance. What goes unsaid by many commentators, however, is that the same sad statistics have been showing up in national studies for 40 years.

Why is MCAS not the best way to address this problem?

Most obviously, we already have too much testing and too little data demonstrating that all this mandated testing leads to real learning gains. A recent National Academy of Science study reached this very conclusion. Do we really want more test prep masquerading as education?

Moreover, history is not the same as math. Essentially, history is an argument about what is important to know and what conclusions can be drawn from “the facts.” We don’t all agree about the past. We discuss, debate, and disagree about it in ways that we don’t, say, with the Pythagorean theorem.

When this sense of argument is removed from history, as standardized exams invariably do, the subject is drained of its lifeblood. The conflict, the drama, the ambiguities, the meaning of the subject become reduced to tedious lists of facts that themselves are quite arbitrary. What was your history class like?

The complexity that characterizes history also underlies this debate over a history MCAS.

Some of the most vociferous proponents of yet another MCAS test have an underlying agenda and motive, which was subtly expressed in their opinion pieces. They favor an MCAS solution to the “history crisis” because they hope test-enforced state frameworks will give them an opportunity to shape and even determine what students will learn about the past.

Among these advocates are the Pioneer Institute and other conservatives who don’t much like how they claim history is taught. They prefer to look at the past through their ideological lens.

Here’s the giveaway: In an op-ed titled “Why history and civics matter” (Telegram & Gazette, July 5), Robert Holland and Dan Soifer of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., tell us that “as problematic as a lack of formal history training is the proliferation of a radical strain of ‘social-justice multiculturalism’ prevalent in many university schools of education.”

That’s an opinion. Here’s a fact: When I went to high school, a half-century ago, there was no controversy about multiculturalism because the official New York State Regents curriculum simply ignored the histories of African-Americans, workers, and immigrants, among other controversial topics. Forget that my classmates and I were largely from immigrant families and a working-class neighborhood. Do we really want to go back to that narrow view of history?

Do we need more history instruction in our schools? Yes. Is history the most important subject students can study? Please forgive this history teacher if he thinks so.

Sadly, most high school students will not become history majors. Nor will they remember much of what they study in their high school classes. For these reasons, history classes must be vibrant and inspire in our students — these young citizens — a lifelong interest in democracy and in our amazing collective story.

Teachers have to encourage discussion, debate, rigor, and critical thinking that go well beyond the memorization of lifeless lists. Students need the chance to see why history poses problems that demand both analysis and imagination. A history MCAS exam will take us in exactly the wrong direction.

Because we need a greater emphasis on history and civics, the state should simply raise the number of years of study required for graduation. At my school, students had to take three years of history, and most chose to take four. This is also the cost-effective solution.

What we don’t need are more tests, or political lobbying by interest groups about what should be taught, or mind-numbing MCAS-prep worksheets.

History becomes memorable when it can be taught in a thoughtful and creative manner. Above all, teachers need the time and freedom to help students understand what William Faulkner meant when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Bill Schechter of Brookline taught history for 35 years at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury.

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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