OPINION: More time should be spent on history education at high school level
In a move met with a statewide yawn last month, the South Dakota State Board of Education approved new standards for social studies, effective for the 2016-17 school year.
That yawn wasn't entirely pervasive, however, as a small group of history professors, middle- and high-school history teachers, and others within the history-affectionate community took great interest, and in some cases great umbrage, at the new standards.
The nub of the apparent tempest in a teapot was the scope of American history content at high school. In other words, what historical eras of our country would be taught? In the end, the content standards do not require that roughly the first half of what is thought of as American history be taught at high school.
This is not quite as bad as it sounds, as schools which teach only modern American history (post-Civil War to modern day, approximately) generally teach early American history (discovery to the Civil War) in eighth grade. Thus, the entire content is covered by the time the student graduates, but many history educators point out that a mature understanding of that first part really can't be fully developed within the 13- or 14-year-old person. And, thereby, they argue history education falters.
It is an important point, because teaching American history well is important. Jefferson, and really most of the founding fathers, believed strongly that a republican form of government could not survive unless the electorate was sufficiently educated in democratic principles and the origins and requirements of our political system.
I believe they were right, and therefore I also believe that the teaching of American history, along with American government/civics, absolutely must be done well.
And if we really believed that, we wouldn't be wasting so much time quibbling over whether early American history, along with modern, must be taught at high school during the year-long course. What we should be discussing is just how much time it really takes to teach American history well to the near-adult, i.e. high school-aged, student. And the answer to that question is: a lot more than we currently allocate.
If we really want to teach American history well, if we really want to safeguard the future of this experiment in democracy, this "shining city upon a hill," we need to secure it sufficient time. In education, while there are many important components that lead to success, the most fundamental is also the most basic: time.
The more time you provide for a subject area — assuming you are taking the task seriously — the better students will learn it. The most important curve in education is not the bell curve but the "j" curve, in which learning grows as time spent on instruction for that learning grows.
So here is a rough outline of what we should do. Continue to teach American history in eighth grade. Repetition of a subject matter over time leads to greater comprehension. Then, at high school, eliminate the artificial barriers between civics, American government and American history. The three topics are so intertwined as to be better taught together.
Currently, these three topics generally consume two years of social studies instruction at high school. Expand that to three years, beginning with the sophomores and ending with the seniors. Integrate civics and American government content within the sweeping chronology of American history where they best fit and drink deeply of each historical era in such a way that students spend the time needed to really grasp the heights and, yes, depths of our national story.
What would these three years cover? Would year one be devoted to early American history while years two and three were spent on the time since 1865, since much of the more modern history is more relevant to our lives? Or would the revolutionary era and generation require much more time since it is the genesis and genius of our system? That would be a conversation for the history community or perhaps even for individual districts but, either way, we would finally give American history teachers and, more importantly, our students, the time they need to really learn their and our story.
And, even to better understand all of the various issues of our political system today. Need a for-instance? The president recently completed work on a multinational treaty with Iran on its attempted forays into nuclear arms, and we are now told that the treaty will pass because more than 34 senators do not oppose it.
But wait, shouldn't a treaty take more than 34 of 100 senators? What about the Treaty of Versailles, which brought to a close the hostilities of World War I, negotiated in part by President Wilson, but which the United States never ratified because it failed to garner a supermajority of U.S. senators? To understand how things have changed, one must understand the rise of the imperial presidency (a phenomenon among presidents of both political parties in the modern age) and one must understand American history.
If all this makes perfect sense, you apparently had a comprehensive American history course taught by a highly competent teacher or professor. If not, well, it is possible my example is a mite too trivial. Or it is possible the system of American history instruction today is inadequate. That's not something you should be blamed for. And it is not something you should be concerned about. It is something we should all be concerned about.
For, as another founding father, Benjamin Franklin, when asked at the close of the Constitutional Convention whether we would have a republic or a monarchy, responded, "A Republic, if you can keep it."
Keeping it may very well be a matter of knowing, appreciating and living out the obligations and promise of our history.