February 24, 2005

AND THEN THE PEOPLE ROSE UP AND KILLED THE MEAN, RACIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC, FUNDAMENTALIST, CAPITALIST KING

A History of Flawed Teaching (Sam Wineburg, Los Angeles Times, February 24th, 2005)

Imagine this: Nearly a third of the students who apply to Stanford's master's in teaching program to become history teachers have never taken a single college course in history. Outrageous? Yes, but it's part of a well-established national pattern. Among high school history teachers across the country, only 18% have majored (or even minored) in the subject they now teach.

I don't doubt the dedication of these people. The application statements I read at Stanford shine with a commitment that renews one's faith in the passion of today's youth. And nearly every one of these young people is willing to forsake a more lucrative career — in law, medicine, business — to pursue teaching.

But how can you teach what you don't know? Would someone who wanted to teach calculus dare to submit a transcript with no math courses? Would a prospective chemistry teacher come to us with a record devoid of science? Yet with history, the theory goes, all you need is a big heart and a thick book.

The state of California encourages this state of affairs. Although it requires teachers to earn a rigorous teaching credential before they may teach math, English, biology or chemistry in the public school system, there is no such credential for history. Instead, the state hands out a loosey-goosey "social science" credential.

To qualify to teach history in California (and in many other states), you can possess a major in almost anything — anthropology, psychology, ethnic studies. All you've got to do is earn the "social science" credential and pass a multiple-choice exam of historical facts. But a storehouse of facts is the beginning, not the end, of historical understanding.[...]

Lack of knowledge encourages another bad habit among history teachers: a tendency to disparage "facts," an eagerness to unshackle students from the "dominant discourse" — and to teach them, instead, what the teacher views as "the Truth." What's scary is the certainty with which this "Truth" is often held. Rather than debating why the United States entered Vietnam or signed the North American Free Trade Agreement or brokered a Camp David accord, all roads lead to the same point: our government's desire to oppress the less powerful. It is a version of history that conjures up a North Korean reeducation camp rather than a democratic classroom.

One need not be a conspiracy theorist to believe Professor Wineburg is missing the underlying design behind what he seems to think is just a bureaucratic omission. The secular modernist project hangs on the belief that history is a steady march from ignorance and oppression to enlightenment and freedom. It has no interest in inculcating any doubt on this and no use for any view of the past as other than a sad and simplistic litany of cruelty and ignorance we must abjure and reject. Modern history does not require trained teachers because it is taught to confirm simplistic prejudices, not to expand culture and knowledge.

Posted by Peter Burnet at February 24, 2005 5:29 PM
Comments

The problem of trained teachers is not confinded to history or even a recent one. My Calculus teacher in 1967 was the football coach -- the best students in the class ended up teaching the chapters to the rest of the class.

Posted by: jd watson at February 24, 2005 8:56 PM
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