Here's a little something I sent to the NY Times a while back that did not get into the newspaper:
Sanitized history is boring history
By STEPHEN PRESKILL
Staten Island, N.Y.
Results released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the gold standard of standardized tests, indicate that American students at all levels are alarmingly ignorant of the most basic facts of our own history. Sam Dillon of the New York Times reported on Wednesday, June 15th that only 20 percent of 4th graders, and a shockingly low 12% of high school seniors, showed proficiency on the history exam. The conclusion is inescapable that the vast majority of students possess virtually no knowledge of history.
As Dillon pointed out, most 4th graders could not explain why Abraham Lincoln was significant, and only a tiny percentage of students could identify what Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case, was about.
As a long-time educator and follower of educational trends, I am not at all surprised by these results. They are exactly what I expect. There has never been a time when American high school students have done well on history examinations. And there is every reason to believe that the level of historical knowledge among the general public is just as abysmal. Over the years, the New York Times has reported many times how little our 17-year-olds know, but it has also shown — using its own specially prepared tests — that adults don’t know much more than their children.
I believe that James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” has the most plausible answer for why we don’t know our history: History is not retained or understood because it’s almost always taught in a boring way — and the reason it’s boring has everything to do with the half-truths and outright lies we tell about it.
Is it really surprising that students don’t know about the Brown case when so many teachers provide them with so little historical context for understanding what a dramatic step forward that case represented? Why should our students know about Lincoln when we so frequently withhold from them what a wily politician he was or how far he progressed in his understanding of slavery and race during the course of the Civil War? Unlike a good movie about real life that is often interesting because all the boring parts have been taken out, we tend to teach history in high school with all the boring parts left in and all the really fascinating material removed so as to not to offend anyone.
This has been true for decades. Our history text books bored students to death for most of the 20th century because everything controversial about American life — including the racism, the sexism, the cultural genocides, the overwhelming social and economic inequities — has been omitted.
If we ever find the courage to tell the true and often tragic story of American history, our students will sit up, take notice, and learn. In the meantime, don’t expect change any time soon. Social studies is famous for being the most boring subject in school, and so it will remain as long as its textbooks and its teachers are unable to face up to the gut-wrenching but arresting truths about that history.
Stephen Preskill is the chairman of the Education Department at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y.