Why History Students Don’t Read and What We Should Do About It

Jim Cullen has a thought-provoking essay at American History Now on the relationship between teaching students how to think like historians and teaching students how to read. Cullen is a realist. He knows that many (most?) students don’t read their history textbooks.

And what is that job [that history teachers do]? For many of us, it’s to teach students to think like historians. We want them to see the relevance of history in their own lives, even as we want them to understand and respect the pastness of the past. We want them to evaluate sources in terms of the information they reveal, the credibility they have or lack, or the questions they prompt. We want them to become independent-minded people capable of striking out on their own. In essence, we want for them what all teachers want: citizens who know how to read, write, and think.

But we don’t think hard enough about what it actually means to read for a young person in the 21st century. We act as if simply assigning a chapter will result in a student reading it. Assuming that student does, we have little sense of how long that might take. Nor do we typically consider how increasingly apart the experience of reading cold type in any form is from the rivers of hot type a student may consume online in formats that include instant messaging, websites, blogs, or social networks. Or the kinds of visual literacy that are in many ways replacing the literacy of traditional reading.

Again: we know this is going on. But we go about our work as if we don’t — or we define our work in terms of resisting or overcoming the world in which our students live. We think it’s our job to ask students to think like historians (historians, who, for the moment, were all born and trained in the twentieth century). We don’t really consider it our job to think like students as a means of showing them why someone would want to think like a historian. We take that for granted because it’s the choice we made. Big mistake.

Cullen wonders what it “would actually mean to teach a course that presumed ignorance or indifference rather than one of preparation and engagement?” Technology only goes so far in getting students engaged with course content. For Cullen the job of the teacher is to move the student from where he or she is at, to a place where he or she learns to love reading.

He concludes:

Can you be a student of history without reading? Yes, because it happens every day. Can you be a serious student of history, can you do history at the varsity level, without it? Probably not. But you can’t get from one to the other without recognizing, and acting, on the reality of student life as it is currently lived. That means imagining a world without books — broadly construed — as a means toward preventing their disappearance.

A lot of this sounds like Lendol Calder’s recent thoughts on students and consumerism. Good teaching, Calder argues, requires us to come down from Mt. Olympus to meet our students where they are at. If that means accepting their consumer-driven mentality, their addiction to technology, or their dislike of reading, then this is what we must do.