Americans: Consistently Ignorant

Over at the New Yorker, an article reflecting on the fact that lots of kids these days (not to mention certain politicians) seem fairly ignorant of history, and how this really isn’t anything new:

And yet it may be that, while kids aren’t getting better, they’re not getting worse. The history of history-education evaluation is littered with voguish pedagogy, statistical funny business, ideological arm wrestling, a disproportionate emphasis on trivia, and a protocol that insures that each generation of kids looks dim to its elders. “We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976.

Personally, I think it’s appalling that many my great-grandparents’ contemporaries couldn’t tell the difference between Jefferson and Davis — maybe it was the name they shared in common which threw them off. Or maybe they were just plain ignit. But it doesn’t surprise me either, since it seems most people keep book learning in their short term memory cache no matter what era you’re in, because outside of the short-term goal of remembering facts long enough to pass a test, most learning does not appear to have any practical use, and people are happy to purge it in order to store things that do matter to them, or which give them pleasure. The same high school senior who can’t tell Jefferson and Davis apart, in either 1916 or today, is likely to be able to tell you the starting lineup of his favorite sport team, or the attributes of all the player classes in World of Warcraft, or the best lures for whatever fish you might be trying to get out of a stream. With apologies to Professor Wineburg, it’s not that the kids are stupid; it’s that they choose what they think is important for them to know.

From a pedagogic point of view, it seems to me that if you want kids to remember history (or science, or math, or whatever), it’s not a matter of simply jamming facts down their gullet, it’s making a case for why remembering the damn things is in any way relevant to their lives. These can include but are not limited to parental or teacher approval, a rational argument about the need to get into a good college, or appealing to a child’s geeky nature in a manner that the child does not feel instinctively that retaining the information will make them the pink chimp in the monkey house known as the United States educational system. I happen to think there’s another very salient reason for everyone to know such stuff — because a wide knowledge base makes one a better citizen and also less likely to be conned by political hustlers banking on one’s ignorance — but then I’m not the one who needs convincing on this subject.

75 Comments on “Americans: Consistently Ignorant”

  1. I believe it was Dave Barry who said that America leads the world in the production of surveys, reports, and other research demonstrating that our graduating high school seniors cannot successfully answer the question “What does a duck say?”

    When I was first learning poll analysis, we learned that about 20% of the population was “numbnuts” — pollster slang at the time for people who could not reliably name any national political figure, explain how to get to any other city from the one they lived in or closest to, or in fact name anything outside their ordinary daily experience.

    A marketing survey of the readers of National Enquirer demonstrated they were distributed pretty evenly across gender, class, race, etc. except that they were somewhat lower in education; the one trait they had, very strongly, was that they could not remember anything that had been in the issue they had bought the week before. For many people the edge of the universe is at the end of their street, their cousins, or last Tuesday. Once you’ve got the give-a-kid-a-job certificate, why keep anything in memory? It’ll just make it hard for your friends to talk to.

    This was about 1980. I don’t think much has changed, except that the numbnuts of 1980 have numbnut grandchildren now.

  2. Having worked in survey research, I can attest to the fact that many people will be thrown into confusion when asked how many rooms are in their house or whether they spent one or two days at the beach last weekend. Surveys are harder than people think!

  3. Thank you for stating this John. When I was fifteen through twenty, the importance of the Glass-Steigall Act or Manifest Destiny was the last thing on my mind and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I also agree that “kids” would know more about history if they were told why it was important to know how we got where we are today. I mean that in a strictly non-political, cause and effect sense.

    I am one of those weird people that was born with a sense of history. It hasn’t made me rich, or for that matter more capable, than anyone else I know who could not pick Thomas Jefferson out of a line-up. What it did for me was allow me appreciate the things I’ve seen in America and the world for what they are and what their context is for all of us as humans. That’s why I think it’s sad that we as a society do such an injustice to history as an academic subject, not that a seventeen year-old can’t identify Millard Fillmore.

  4. John, you be preaching to the choir in your regular Whatever readers and commentators. I am switching from teaching high school English to high school Chemistry in the coming year. The public ed mantra from the powers-that-be continues to say keep it relevant or the kiddos won’t care to move anything to long-term memory. Labs will be the fun way to make things relevant, but time nor money exists to do labs every day. Suggestions? I am open to suggestions.

  5. Every time I read that according to some survey, an alarming X percent of students can’t do something that they should, or don’t know something they should, I am reminded of a letter in Time magazine years ago. It was written by a student, and said (approximately):

    You come in with your questions, and someone raises a hand and asks “Does this count?” Since it doesn’t, who cares if we get the answers right? We guess, mark answers in a pattern, or just lie to see if we can fool you. Then you write an article and tell us we are stupid.

  6. Gary Willis: one of the more successful high school chemistry teachers I’ve known used to bring his guitar to class and sing silly songs he’d written about the topic of the day. It definitely wouldn’t work for everyone, I admit! But did his classes ever remember! (key to advertising, too – put something in a jingle, and people will remember it for ever, whether they want to or not!)

    One trick I’ve found that helped (for students who already somewhat cared) is to make mnemonics for things. You do run into the problem of kids remembering the mnemonic but not the meaning, but it does help to keep things in the brain longer. (biochem example: tyrosine tWo rings – hence the one letter abbreviation W. Real reason for W: they ran out of letters before they got to tyrosine. But I remember it ten years later…)

  7. Over in my home state, our Education department came up with a standardized test which would be used to determine High School graduation. So, to iron out the kinks, they gave it to the current group of HS Seniors (which included my nephew). The test was then delayed a couple years since the scores were so bad.

    No one stopped to think that they were asking a bunch of 17/18 year old kids to take a test that had no impact on their grades, graduation or anything else. Not surprisingly, the kids didn’t take it seriously and the scores were horrible.

  8.’s not a matter of simply jamming facts down their gullet, it’s making a case for why remembering the damn things is in any way relevant to their lives.

    I can’t remember where I read it, but someone once pointed out that if you have to convince students that the information is relevant, then you’ve already lost them.

    These can include but are not limited to parental or teacher approval, a rational argument about the need to get into a good college,…

    These are not reasons for material to be relevant.

    Relevance is judged by the life experience of the students, and that can only be judged by teachers who are connected with the students. I struggle with relevance in teaching mathematics because a large part of the curriculum is geared toward the small percent of students who are going to take Calculus. The hero of myself and many in mathematics education is Dan Meyer. Anyone who is concerned about education should read his blog or check out his TED Talk here.

  9. Oh kids today! And yesterday! And a few years ago!

    When I was in school, I certainly remember these kinds of surveys coming out. I found them silly then, I find them silly now.

    Education is important, indeed, but for the deeper stuff–understanding history, grasping the context of literature and such–I think it usually takes a bit more time, and a bit more rationality, than kids have to spare.

  10. The best way to make teenagers believe something is important is to somehow make it desirable. Starting line ups for teams are cool to know if a teen wants to impress his peers with the ‘cool shit’ you know, the rez time of a spell in WoW is only known to those who think it is in their favor to know it.

    The problem I see now is that the kids are lacking in practical skills that they would learn at the knee of parents and neighbors. Kids growing up in rural Ohio in 1915 probably also learned how to buck hay and drive a tractor. Kids growing up in an urban setting learned a skill or two necessary or advantageous to that environment.

    Now, not so much. Few parents have the time, even when they have the skills themselves.

    Depressing, but perhaps I am just not imaginative enough to find a way.

  11. Well said, John.

    Man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the American Educational System is failing because “kids these days” don’t know nothing, I’d be a rich man. It is the age old complaint of old people too out of touch with their children to realize the dissonance they are experiencing is that of their own relevance drifting down on the sociological river of life. I’ll bet you can find similar “kids these days” quotes as far back as there’s been a printed language, which makes me think the person asking the question is the real “ignorant” one.

  12. Gary Willis @#4 – my son’s a middle schooler in IB science classes. His teacher last semester put a “Solve it” problem at the front of the classroom once or twice a week. It was usually a visual puzzle, like three graduated cylindars each filled with liquid and a ball floating at various depths. Students could ask the teacher questions and they could chat in groups at their tables, but after a pretty brief period they had to present their best guess. They wouldn’t be graded on the correctness of the answer, but their participation was part of their daily mark. It seemed to be a somewhat popular brain exercise that didn’t take up too much class time.

  13. on a pedantic note, am I the only one to pick up that the New Yorker apparently doesn’t know the difference between insure and ensure? Pot>>kettle

  14. “He who controls the past commands the future. He who commands the future conquers the past.”

    — George Orwell

    This is why history matters.

    “When Wikipedia has a server outage, my apparent IQ drops by about 30 points.”

    Remember being told that there’s a huge gap between rote memorization and the ability to actually make use of that knowledge …

    Which is more important: memorizing some (random) table of historical dates (which even historians can’t always agree on, dates which still can and do change on a regular basis depending on the subject); or the ability to quickly (and accurately) pick those dates out of a relevant Wikipedia entry (and its discussion article) and understand WHY the dates you picked are the currently accepted or agreed upon set?

  16. Fear is also a useful motivator. I went to a school that used a teaching method called “taking boards.” For the first 15 minutes of every class in which a “problem” could be worked (math, chemistry, phsyics), we would stand at the chalk boards and work out a problem related to the previous day’s lecture and homework set. Students would then present the problem individually to the teacher, or one student would be asked to present the problem to the class. Any students that failed would be left at the boards, while the rest of the class sat down and walked them through the problem. Needless to say, you didn’t want to be the last fool left standing.

    Even though I was an English major type, I worked much harder to prepare for those classes than the classes I actually enjoyed — simply out of fear of humiliating myself. I’m not recommending this method of instruction, but boy did it work. It certainly made those subjects relevant to me. (The English class equivalent of this practice was the memorization and recitation of poetry, though fortunately this was not a daily ordeal. One teacher liked to say, “I’m going to lodge a bit of beauty in your brain whether you like it or not!”)

  17. “it’s not a matter of simply jamming facts down their gullet, it’s making a case for why remembering the damn things is in any way relevant to their lives.”

    I studied the History of Education pretty heavily, and this is definitely a major theme in the early 20th Century. History was seen as linking our smallish (population-wise) colony to the rest of the British Empire, creating strong cultural and political links across the Atlantic.

    The use of history (and other subjects) in and outside of schools to foster a sense of imperial identity in Canadian youth during the turn of the last century was argued as a central aspect of why so many teenagers and men enlisted in 1914. (A recentish study on this has the evocative title of “Educating Young Boys for War.”)

    I haven’t read the rest of the comments, but look forward to doing so when I get the chance!

  18. And here’s where I put in a plug for some sort of Critical Thinking curriculum, taught to kids as young as possible. (Yeah, yeah, critical thinking skills should be integrated into pretty much every subject. Are they?)

  19. I have a political science degree and most of my history knowledge has come from me wanting to learn it. I picked it up on my own. If you want to learn history the easy way check out The Teaching Company. They hire college professors to create courses that you can listen to. They are tight and well done. I have listened to or watched over 60 of them. They are expensive. However, they sell to libraries. The one in my area has alot of them. I actually emailed the guy who did some of the midievil courses and asked for additional reading materials. He said he prepared for a year before recording the course. The courses are 30 minutes each and tightly package. So you may get from 12-48 episodes or classes in each. They have a booklet with maps. Its enough info that you can go on wikipedia later on and look stuff up. And no, I don’t work with them or know anyone there. Note, I never bought them, I get them from the library.

    There are also other sites. Berkley has some free classes up. Not alot, but some. The one on the Roman Empire is terrific. Its audio-only, but the woman who does it has a vibrant personality. Its from 3-4 years ago, so you have to look for it. For the conservatives out there… seriously… it doesn’t matter if they are liberals, its rome.

  20. “— because a wide knowledge base makes one a better citizen and also less likely to be conned by political hustlers banking on one’s ignorance —”

    That is certainly something I would want but…

    I guess I’m becoming a cynic in my old age John, but what makes you think that The Powers That Be WANT a “better citizen less likely to be conned by political hustlers”?

    I would think it’s easier to stay in power and do what you want when the citizenry is ignorant and docile, which we are quickly becoming.

  21. I believe that outside the classroom, there is a hunger to learn stuff — like history — among teenagers and young adults. I went to a number of historical reenactment events this last spring, and was quite thrilled to see that there were many young participants … and a great many kids in the audience watching.

    And making the learning about historical events interesting and relatively painless is the reason that I write historical fiction, myself. Most times, history can be told as a ripping good yarn … and not the least boring, juiceless and pointless.

  22. Gary Willis: One possible answer to “why do we have to know this?” is “It could keep you from getting killed.” You could have Disaster Friday. Each week you look at something like

    BLEVEs (video at ; crapload of detail, simply stated, at )

    or the disaster at Lake Nyos in Cameroon:

    or the cautionary tale of what happens when you weld shut the relief valve on a liquid nitrogen tank: .

    There’s a huge list of such things at .

    (p.s. If I could have anyone in history as a science teacher, I’d pick Michael Faraday. He used to do free lectures for kids, with showy demonstrations, and they were pretty cool. Some of them are collected in “The Chemical History of a Candle” at Project Gutenberg. Probably too remote to grab the kids directly, but reading it might spark some ideas you could put to use in class.)

  23. I work as a librarian and the teachers I see regularly in my library for class visits often give me a birds eye view into their scheduled curriculum. It dismays me. The teachers are pulling their hair out as they try to rush through curriculum so that they can get back to test prep (because test prep is the one that matters to the school in order for it to survive as a school). There’s so little time to teach these kids how to learn rather than trying to cram memorized facts into their head and instruct them on test taking. One of my best social studies teachers was my 8th grade teach, Mr. Green. He was tough, but fair. He would teach us all about an era, bringing in props and songs and playing word games with the key vocabulary. He had us debate issues in class, do oral presentations in character, and match wits with him on the history.

    I still remember more from that social studies class than from any other year. And not all of it stuck. But enough did that I got the fact that the Civil War was more than about slavery, I know what yellow journalism is and I got a good ear for protest music. I think it would behoove our education system to make kids wonder and ask questions about the past. Once I started being curious about something, all it took was someone helping me find the information I needed on the subject to begin my own learning. If we give the kids that spark of interest, and the tools to uncover history and the wisdom to figure out how to apply it that would be of more value than any number of kids who can recite historical facts with no understanding of what they mean.

  24. The fundamental problem here is that for a school-aged child there IS no relevancy to their lives. There is no good reason for someone that age range to need to know the information we are trying to teach them in school, beyond the arbitrary need to know them for the tests. Later in life this sort of knowledge is important, there I most certainly agree. But for a child, no, there is no good reason you can give them that they should learn it.

    We should not be trying to teach them facts at all. We should be trying to teach them how to think. We should be teaching them how to learn. Because there will be a time later in life when they need to know the facts, and if we give them the tools they need to learn them then they won’t have to have them memorized as a child. But our educational system is entirely geared towards rote memorization instead of teaching useful skills. Which brings us to the main reason our educational system looks so useless: because it is.

  25. I find it heartbreaking so few know about our history. I had to explain the Cuban Missile Crisis to the people I saw X-Men First Class with, and I definitely found that frustrating. But a lack of historical knowledge isn’t any kind of sign of a kid or adult’s stupidity. Like you said, it is all about what one prioritizes and feels is important enough to stick up there in the memory banks. My wife couldn’t care less about history and so she promptly forgets everything I rant and rave about in that regards. But she likes her science and thus lots of that is stored up there. She can have a decent conversation about medicine with any doctor. I usually just wait until I can start talking about history again.

  26. If we want to stop kids being conned by political hucksters then the best thing to do would be make watching “Yes (Prime) Minister” compulsory in schools. That should do it.

    As for surveys, like Sir Humphrey says, no one commissions surveys only results.

  27. “We should not be trying to teach them facts at all. We should be trying to teach them how to think. We should be teaching them how to learn. ”

    It is, of course, necessary that they assimilate something to think about. A few facts to practice their emerging “learning skills” on, if you will.

    Memorizing is a useful skill. Can we stipulate that? I need to remember things all the time. The better my ability to memorize, the better I can perform in all kinds of areas. Not just arcane ones, like computer programming, which is of course easier if you can remember which command does what. Driving. Cooking. Holding a phone number or email address in my memory long enough for me to get to a pencil and paper and write it down.

    Well, memorizing is something that gets better with practice. So, no, I disagree that rote memorizing is useless.

    I no longer write programs and am now a homeschooling parent, so I have little to do with the “educational system.” I have now taught three kids through American history. I made them memorize some dates. Not many. Here they are: 1492, 1776, 1860, 1865, 1900, 1918, 1929, 1941, 1945, 1991, 2001. Linked one or two important events to each date, with one exception, the arbitrary 1900. The reason I had them memorize these dates strung out like fenceposts was just to give them a sort of mental coordinate line where they could hang events to keep them in order. So that, for example, when they hear that the first moon landing occurred in 1969, they could think to themselves, “Ah, that happened after World War Two but before the World Wide Web opened to the public.” I think of that memory work — memorizing those eleven dates — as an object lesson in “how to learn.” By linking historical events to what came before and what came after, we can begin discussing cause and effect, context and entanglements. Without the data that places each event in its place and time, it’s hard to answer any probing questions about who was capable of influencing whom.

    Another kind of memory work that I expect will bear some fruit: my four-year-old daughter and her six-year-old friend have memorized about sixty nursery rhymes and poems. They enjoy that work, and they like quizzing each other, so it’s not very hard to get them to do it. Later we’ll be able to call on that mental catalog to begin discussing meter and rhyme and imagery. And they’ll be able to memorize and perform much longer pieces and poems if they want, because they know how to do it and are comfortable with it.

    So, yes, memory work is important. It doesn’t supplant learning how to learn; it is one of the tools in the learning toolbox. A very important one, I might add.

  28. I’m afraid I have to disagree with TPRJones in #25 about there being no relevance for students in school to learn facts. The fact that there are people out there, probably on all sides of the political and religious spectra but especially it seems by the right (I’m looking at you, David Barton), who make it their mission to change the facts of history as they tell it to suit their ideological and theological hobby horses. If we don’t learn the facts of history in school, where are we going to learn them? And if we don’t learn those facts, how are we going to know we are being lied to? Because that does matter, very much.

    I do agree that students should be taught how to learn, or perhaps more accurately, how to search out knowledge, part of which is skill is how to think critically and evaluate the sources where we find that knowledge, but I don’t think doing that and teaching facts are mutually exclusive activities.

  29. Seems to me that the people who really know their stuff in any given realm are usually folks who’ve decided to keep learning on a subject in their adult lives, not kids who randomly latched onto the ephemera of their elementary school educations.

  30. I wonder if the fact that learning, doing well in school and generally being considered smart is a plus in the “cool” column of our wonderful society has any thing to do with at all….

  31. @4, just make sure you don’t turn to _Breaking Bad_ for notes…..

    Unrelatedly, I used to teach college history at a predominantly science and engineering college (that, oddly enough required those future scientists and engineers to take two years of history classes); since 95% of our students had no interest in being there from the outset, how to get them interested was a major topic of discussion. What seemed to work best was to move away from memorization (which isn’t really what historians do, anyway) and towards storytelling. Most important events in history have either an interesting or a seamy side–often both. If you can spin it as an interesting story with some cool details that the kids will want to show off to their peers (how Edward II died is one such example, although perhaps not appropriate to a high school audience), they’ll (mostly) pay attention. You can slip a lot of important facts into stories like that, and it seemed like the thing that worked best to get the kids to pay attention and, even if by accident, learn.

  32. If children are not exposed to history in school, where will it happen? It seems to me that the current emphasis on math, science and reading has helped crowd out things like geography, history, social studies (remember that?) and writing. Kids today are lucky if they come through high school knowing how to string 4 sentences together for a coherent paragraph. It’s not surprising that they lack instruction in history either – there’s not much history on the standardized testing that is so popular today.

  33. Hmmm. I’m not certain that comparing people in 1900, when the literacy rate in the US was roughly 90%, (source) with people in 1980-now (literacy >99%) is entirely fair.

    At the least, we should be scoring 10% better now than in 1900. If we’re not, then we’ve either gotten collectively more ignorant, or we need to reevaluate what “literate” means. To paraphrase Mark Twain, there’s not much difference between people who can’t read and people who don’t read.

  34. If you want to engage anyone in learning something you have to figure out a way to engage them. the thing is it usually isnt the same thing that engaged you. just think of that guy you know who knows everything there is to know about XXX and often starts talking about it when you are around him and you find it boring to tears. But then at some point you need to make some sort of decision around XXX and you call the guy up and everything he says is suddenly interesting.

    most people dont care about the difference between 4wd and Awd except for that month or so where they decide they need a new car. lots of people dont know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat unless they were trying to lose weight at some point. when you think about the stuff people do know that wasnt inspired by an immediate need, its often something the person found entertaining. sports. a tv show. recreational vehicles. whatever.

    given that, if you are a high school teacher and you want to engage your students, it seems that the options boil down to telling them they will need it to get into college (functional) or make it entertaining and/or memorable or both.

    decades later I still vividly remember that gold on the periodic chart is AU because someone in my class had come up with the line “A! U! Bring back my gold!”

  35. ADifferentJohn@32: Quite true! I hated history in high school, but ended up with a degree in it because it’s taught much more interestingly in college.

    Peter III of Russia (husband to Catherine the Great) was a little crazy. One day Catherine finds him in his rooms, with a dead rat hanging from the ceiling, and several legions of toy soldiers lined up around it. When asked what he was doing, Peter replied that the rat had murdered two of his soldiers (he showed her toys with the heads gnawed off), so he tried it for treason, found it guilty, executed it, and was now displaying its body before the troops.

    There’s no reason in the world that I’ll ever need that knowledge, but I’ll never forget that story.

  36. Oh, I will also note that if the pop question comes up as to what ammendment grants women the right to vote not only will I tell them, but I will tell them by bursting into song. specifically the schoolhouse rock song “sufferin till suffrage”. or at least the chorus part of the song.

    so, yeah, jingles.

  37. High school debate.

    These were some of the debate topics from the National Debate League (the original NFL) for the past year:

    Resolved: The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice.

    Resolved: The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.

    Resolved: In the United States, juveniles charged with violent felonies ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

    My debaters delved into history and social science research to write cases. We studied Prohibition, juvenile justice, mercenaries (even in the Revolutionary War) – and applied those lessons toward modern concerns.

    What teenager doesn’t want to argue?

    Put a student into a debate over the issues and their impacts and the student will find relevancy.

    –E @ 34

    Would you cite a source for the “literacy>99%” claim?

    Yeah, I’m a debate coach.

  38. I love history, always have. I hated history class. It was tedious rote memorization of dates and Great Men and wars, with no understanding of context or the common man. I would read loads of books from the library on history and wonder why they were so much more interesting than the awful textbooks we had.

    History is stories. Told well it is captivating, thrilling, fascinating, informative, and a joy to reread. Textbooks rarely do this well. And history teachers at the primary and high school level are often not enamored of history, it’s just what was available to teach.

  39. Gary Willis #4 — chemistry in everyday life. Water+flour, mixed and kneaded, + lots more water ==> wheat gluten (mock duck); Water+flour+yeast, mixed and kneaded ==> bread dough (yes, there’s biology there, too). Beer. Booze. Hair conditioner. …

  40. My first history teacher had a deal: If you score an A on a test, you don’t have to do homework until the next test. So long as you keep scoring A, you don’t need to do homework.

    That was pretty motivating.

  41. This string of diatribes calls for my favorite quote: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” – Plato

    Notice this guy felt the same way quite some time ago. My contention is that what happens is change. Every generation changes in terms of what is relevant to them. Does that make them wrong? Their parents/elders seem to think so – but then the children themselves think that about the generation that follows. We all resist change and feel we each represent what is roughly “normal” or “right” – even if we like to contend we are each different or special. It’s just change…..

  42. As an honest to goodness history teacher, I can attest to a few things. First, history has suffered at the hands of No Child Left Behind. Because the emphasis on reading, writing, and math, there is less time for less subjects like Social Studies, vocational subjects, PE and to a lesser extent Science. My best friend who teaches 5th grade has to spend so much time each week on reading, writing, and math that they get only one hour a week on Social Studies. By the time I get the students in high school, they don’t have any historical foundation. I spend much of my time teaching how a time line works, what the difference is between a primary and secondary source. I get little time to teach actual history in a meaningful manner.

    Second, we don’t have a lot of time to teach. I teach in AZ (a whole other problem) the standards for world history are diverse and comprehensive. Each semester is about 90 days. Take away 6 to 10 days of testing each semesters, assemblies, days in which I am forced to travel for coaching, fire alarms (both false alarms, and drills) and interruptions from administration and the counseling departments (they interrupt our class because there is not test for social studies) we end up with closer to 50 days. We rush and don’t get time to teach and make sure connections are met.

    Third, students don’t always care about history. It’s often boring and hard to relate to them and it is compounded by the methods we have to use to get through all of our standards.

    I’m convinced that no one in power wants to improve education. We are given less to work with and more responsibility and rarely does anything change.

  43. Every time I hear someone running for public office say something about the United States being founded as a christian nation, essentially confusing the Puritans and the folks who wrote our Constitution, I think there ought to be a basic history test for anyone who is running for election. I looking at you Mrs. Palin.

  44. Couple of things in the comments I’d like to address:

    a) Fear being a motivator – this only works for students who have an aggressive personality to begin with. Research has found that potential humiliation, embarrassment by the teacher, etc, mostly just excludes the outliers, shyer students, etc. For learning to happen, students need to be a safe environment, where they know that they will not be punished or derided for saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question, or not doing something right. Without this environment, few students will make any effort to become aggressive learners. Our society has put so much value on “having the right answer” – and this is a change in the educational system from about the 40’s or 50’s on, actually – but it is counter to actually educating children. Or adults, for that matter.

    b) Facts vs. Learning – if you teach a child HOW to learn, they will get the facts themselves. Ditto for “rote” learning. The issue at hand is that if students do not know or understand the process of complex critical thinking, problem solving and, well, learning, they will always be dependent on someone else to feed them their facts, and tell them what to memorize. If you want autonomous human beings, you have to guide them to self-sufficiency.

    c) All of these things mentioned here have been backed by RESEARCH. We know how kids learn; we know how to optimally teach, even. What we don’t have is support from administration or the government. Teachers who try to innovate and encourage true learner are often hampered or outright blocked by either state testing requirements, or admin who only care about test scores.

    d) Test scores prove jack shit. They’re useless. No Child Left Behind was the worst thing that has happened to education in this country in decades. Grr. Just thinking about it makes my blood boil.

    e) When approached in the right way, kids want to learn. Kids are naturally curious. It is often school, unfortunately, that stifles that curiosity by teaching that the only important thing is The Right Answer. Ironic, since in life, there’s rarely one right answer at all…

  45. Though of course, often the Right Answer is usually “you shouldn’t do that.” Still.

  46. @ Anonymous Saprano re: Fear being a motivator.

    I agree with you completely. I am a very shy person, and “taking boards” was a horror show for me — which is why I worked so hard at it, and why I say “it worked” but for all the wrong reasons. I would *not* recommend teachers doing this to their kids unless they do it in a gentle, positive way (which, to be fair, most, but not all, teachers did at my school).

    By the way, it turns out the English department at my alma mater is now using this method of teaching as well. This article focuses on the positive, but I can attest to the negative. link –

  47. A couple of years ago I was in London at Thanksgiving time. I took a tour of the Tower and had a wonderful Yoeman Warder as tour guide (the entire trip was like a college course in English history as done by Monty Python). Our group trooped along to the first stop where the gentleman threw out an event and asked what year it had happened. There was a long silence and some wag in the group piped up “A really long time ago.” to which our guide said “Ah, I see we have Americans in the group today.” We all laughed and proceeded to repeat the response in chorus each time he asked us for a historic date. It was funny, and yet I have to wonder if other countries aren’t so much better at history merely because they have more of it. The UK is steeped in history, blue plaques everywhere in London – this was George Orwell’s house. This is the pump where the 1849 cholera outbreak started, This spot is where an IRA bomb went off in 1974. It was the same in most of the countries I have visited.

    The US, however, is relatively young country. There just isn’t that much history to learn; which granted should make it easier and yet it can be really hard to get excited about a portfolio that is somewhat thin. I even notice a difference between east coast and west coast. Boston – lousy with history; LA? Not so much. Perhaps it just takes some time and historical perspective.

  48. As to whether memorization or being good at looking things up is the more important skill, I can’t see how that question can be answered at all. If you don’t have some idea about the international struggles in South America in the generations after independence, how much will you understand about the War of the Pacific when you look it up? But if you have to rely on what you remember … well, Poul Anderson may have expressed it best in “Superstition” … “I used to love those old stories, Eisenhower’s duel with Hitler on the Golden Gate Bridge and all that” (which I will have quoted wrong because I just relied on memory).

    Creative work is more like tango, karate, jazz sax, or watercolor; if you have to think of the name of it and then look it up, you can’t really do it. The necessary scutwork before creativity is more like warehouse work: find it here and move it there, and it doesn’t much matter where it is now as long as it’s findable and movable. You can look up the notes but they have to get into your bones before they can be music.

  49. Mark Lieberman at Language Log pointed out answers for a question on Brown v. Board of Education chosen by the NAEP officials as representative examples of incorrect or partial answers.
    “An example of an answer scored as “partial” but not “correct”: The Brown girl had to walk past the white school every day to get to her “equal” black school. Her father took the issue to court — separate but equal is not really equal.”

    “An example of an answer scored as completely wrong: Separate but equal → segragation”

    That seems a pretty good argument that the grading standard is absolutely ridiculous, particularly for an exam that students have no incentive to try to excel on.

  50. I also have to express puzzlement at the notion that one can “teach facts” or “teach critical thinking”, but never both, and that critical thinking can happen in the utter absence of learning about any facts. This is especially absurd if we’re pretending that they can just pick up facts somehow, maybe through Wikipedia, once they’re grownup, and all they need to learn in the meantime are the tools of rhetoric.

    (By the way, while the xkcd cartoon is hilarious, the idea that Wikipedia is an authoritative source is not.)

  51. It is interesting that this discussion came up today. Yesterday, on a discussion board I frequent, the topic of the day apparently was slavery and the Civil War. The level of actual discussion was almost non-existent, and no one brought up the fine distinction between “slavery” and the more practical issues of the time about the expansion of slavery. No one stepped back a few years to discuss the legal cases regarding states rights that were at the heart of the Dred Scott legalities. There was an incessant tenor to the conversation to interpret the events of that time by today’s morals and standards.

    In a lighter note, this thread motivated me to pull out one of my oddest possessions, a student encyclopedia published in 1898. This part caught my eye: “it…left..the nation with a debt of $2,800,000,000.” “The debt has been reduced by nearly one-half, in spite of the enormous amount paid out every year in pensions to the survivors of the war.”

  52. It seems to me that the people most interested in the past are those who wish to exact vengeance for some wrong committed upon them in distant memory. See: Every instance of tribal warfare everywhere.

  53. There’s a disconnect between me and those poor ignorant folks. I live to learn things. The Internet has made me more knowledgeable. When I see something interesting that I don’t know much about, I dig into it on Wikipedia and elsewhere. When I see a word I don’t know, I grab a dictionary. When I see an actor who looks familiar I go on IMDB and find out their name. When I see an interesting food on a menu, I hunt down a recipe and learn how to cook it. Learning, because learning is valuable for its own sake.

    Kids aren’t stupid. They just aren’t interested in knowing anything, and really never have been. All the rest of us can do is stare and marvel at the arrogance of ignorance and shake our heads… and keep learning stuff.

  54. Well of course students need to learn some facts as part of the process. The problem is that is ALL they are required to learn. The vast majority of education below the college level these days focuses on memorization. Some math classes almost come close to teaching the philosophy behind the subject, but even they usually veer away at the end and make the kids memorize rules instead. It’s absolutely possible for a child to learn the deeper meanings in school, but it is not required, it is not encouraged, and it is almost never even presented.

    Education does improve somewhat in college, but then they are expected to already know how to think by the time they get there even though know one has ever taught them how.

    Our system is absurd. Where it is not incompetent, it is instead unfair. And the few good teachers there are in the system aren’t allowed to do their jobs the way they need to be done.

  55. I had somewhat of a passing interest in the Roman Empire, but trying to keep all the different people straight was usually pretty hard for me.

    ANd then HBO’s “Rome” series came on and put faces adn personalities to a lot of the different people living during that time and suddenly, blammo, a lot of stuff in that time period suddenly had a context around which I could place the events.

    I’ve found that when I take the long view of history around some event, get the overall idea of what happened, the “story”, then I have a memorable framework upon which to hang the facts, dates, people, places, events, etc.

    What I remember of history class growing up was that it was all rote memorization of stuff. We’d jump around in the text book. And we read about events almost with zero context around the event, and absolutely no narrative to put the event into some sort of perspective. Not surprisingly (to me at least), about the only thing I can remember from all those years of history classes is the phrase “ming dynasty” and “magna carta” and that’s about it.

  56. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Several of you responded to my early post with suggestions, even resources. Thank you.

    To all who observed good history is story telling, kudos. My best memories of social studies teachers were the ones who were storytellers. In English we read lots of stories. I am wracking my brain trying to think of ways to teach high school Chemistry by telling stories every day before we launch into the attendant problem solving math sides of things. Think they will shoot me if I read a poem every day to my Chemistry students? I picked up years ago a volume of poems titled Verse and Universe where all the poems were math/science/cosmos related in some way?

  57. Greg — Sing About Science and Physics Songs .

    I always thought that the important (and hardest) part was to inspire the students to learn. If a poem or song will hook their inner child ego states (I’ve been reading too much Transactional Analysis lately) go for it.

  58. Kids aren’t stupid. They just aren’t interested in knowing anything, and really never have been.

    Er…was this supposed to be sarcasm? Otherwise, it’s a pretty breathtakingly silly mashup of “we elites vs. the sheeple” and “get off my lawn, you damn kids”.

  59. @50 Don’t be so quick to assume that every English person knows all that much history. Not to plug outside of a thread intended for it, but there’s a quite funny (if you do know some English history) book called
    1066 and All That which is basically a regular English person’s description of the history of England based on what he learned in public school…obviously, it has more than a few errors….

  60. @62 I’m not trying to say that all Brits are brilliant historians, more that it felt like history was more present, if that makes sense. Few people, outside of actual historians will ever get all the facts right and even then they are pretty well aware of how written history is colored by the person writing it. Yet I have found in my travels that places that have that weight of time, that large portfolio of history, seem to have people who are just more aware of it and perhaps more interested in it. It would be hard to be completely ignorant of your country’s history if you live, say, in a French town that has the ruin of a Roman temple in the middle of it. Or living in a section of Edinburgh called New Town that was built in the late 1700’s. It makes me wonder if having a tangible sense of history surrounding you all the time doesn’t make you just more aware and interested in it. Which takes me to the mental leap that maybe we get more interested in history as we get older just because we have more personal history. All just a theory, but I find it interesting to ponder.

  61. htom@60: your first link doesnt work for me.

    Gary@58: chemistry has always been hard for me so I dont know what would make it easier to experience of chemistry is memorizing a bunch of seemingly arbitrary rules and even the first level of questioning why it works that way is ‘we dont know’.

    why do electron travel in ‘shells’? why are they often in pairs? the entire periodic table seems completely arbitrary to me and no one I asked.could ever explain it such that it made sense.

    sure this column is the noble gasses and the rows amd colums line up with how electrons organize around a nucleus. but *why* do they organize that way.

    if i win the lottery I might go back to school for physical chemistry because I would like to know.

  62. True facts:
    In fourth grade (1969), in exchange for a six-week leave from school to visit Germany I was [t]asked to write a report about said nation. Me: “What, all of it?” Teacher: “Well, its history, its culture… perhaps its economy, etc.”
    Much skull sweat later I had a handwritten report of some 8-10k words, which I later had to present (in part!) to the class at large. Our teacher was utterly blown away to learn of one Johannn Gutenberg; despite being sincere and well-intentioned, not to mention Bible-oriented, she had never heard of the invention of mechanised printing nor had any idea of how political events had been shaped by that one invention. (Pop quiz: what was the number one highest-selling book of all time?) This person, despite a serious lack of exposure or understanding of world- or European history, had been hired by our beloved school system[1] to teach that very subject, among others.

    *dons asbestos jumpsuit*
    IMHO, the nature of the perceived problem is largely recursive: those who are failing to teach today’s youth are chiefly those who were ill-taught themselves, or those who failed to do more than rote-memorise the subject matter in the very fashion that they (and we) find deplorable.

    [1] This same instructor, on discovering that my mother[2] was packed full of all sorts of fascinating historical learning, eagerly invited my mother to give presentation(s) to our class. My mother’s response – “Pray tell, how much do you intend to pay me to do the job for which you were hired?” – was tart, but priceless.

    [2] Who had neither advanced learning degrees, nor even a certificate for having completed basic education in the German school system. Go Mom!

  63. Maybe we should be listening to Saint-Exupery: Instead of approaching things head on, step back and figure out how to motivate people to remember.

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  64. Gary@58: You’ll have to hit the used bookstores for them or find a really long run of F&SF in a library or collection, but in the early 1970s Asimov, in his F&SF Science column, did the story of the discovery of a lot of elements. 19c through early 20th, mostly, which is when most were found. 19c chemical technique=basic high school lab nowadays. Maybe there’s a thought in that?

  65. John@68 Thanks for the suggestion.

    Greg@64 Amen. Hope you win that lottery. I dropped Physical Chem the first time around and had to retake it a later semester. You put your finger on the crux. Chemistry and all of science are excellent on the questions of how. Not so hot on why. I just spent a week at a College Board Pre-AP Chemistry Summer Institute at the University of Texas at Arlington. Well done by the consultant, but boy is my head spinning since I have been out of the science game for a good long while. I like Chemistry because it does tell how atoms, molecules,compounds, hang together, and react or not. But why is often a matter of conjecture, or theory. Theories are good when based on experimentally observed facts which can predict what will happen next. I like theories too. But scientists more often than not cannot tell you with certainty why some things happen. They just do. All the scientist can tell you is why they think things do what they do. Good theories stick around a long while. The shakey theories are exposed by later experiments to have clay feet and fall by the wayside. Rather than wait for the lottery, why don’t you get one of those CDs from a cataloge of great courses done by university professors on Chemistry in particular and listen to it at your liesure. In school we must cover the learning objectives in too little time so everything is oh so rushed that we shout out the how and pay lip service to the why. You might enjoy listening to the lectures while driving to work and back over say a year? Just a thought.

  66. Mythago @61: I’m not sure it’s elitist (or at least not in any evil way) to acknowledge that many people don’t enjoy learning for its own sake very much and don’t think about what they’ve learned any more than necessary. Exercise, eating well, relaxation, and fashionable dressing are all also things that some people just don’t like even though they might well be good for them, and the rest of us would like it if they did. (And which, I guess, some people do get judgmental about). Historically very large numbers of people lose interest in learning after they leave childhood. (One thing that irritates me about almost all education research: it concludes that students naturally want to learn BECAUSE MOSTLY THEY STUDY 6-9 YEAR OLDS. Study 15 year olds, or 20 year olds, of average intelligence and you might see something rather different. Based on the common methodology, they ought to be concluding that people have an innate drive to understand dinosaurs, boogers, and Barbies).

  67. Gary: why don’t you get one of those CDs from a cataloge of great courses done by university professors on Chemistry in particular

    I feel like you are referring to something that I should know, but don’t. What CD are we talking about?

  68. Greg @ 71

    There is a link to a Chemistry DVD at Great Courses. They send me a catalogue a couple of times a year. I salivate over it everytime it comes and bemoan my lack of time during the academic year to do one of the courses just for fun. By summer I am just too tired to think about it. Check it out. And I am sure you can google other competing companies that offer much the same service.

    Hmmm. maybe I need to latch on to that DVD and see if I can use it with my projection tech in my classroom next year. Why reinvent the wheel?

  69. Greg @ 71

    I ordered the DVD set in the preceeding post. 6 DVDs 36 one-half hour lectures. One workbook. All for about $90. After I look at them this summer, I will decide if they are just for me or if my kids will ever see them in class on screen, copyright laws permitting naturally. Usually you can screen up to 10% under the fair use for educational purposes provisions.

  70. May I point out that well read fans are the least representative to comment about reading as it relates to young americans?
    We are older, read more, and despite our political differences actually tend to agree on the facts.

    I say this because I actually met the kids of the National Forensic League national conference and got to compare them to Japanese Anime Fans (back to back hotel bookings as it were).

    Fact: The anime fans brought books with them, the NFL had just cameras and smarthphones.

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