It has been said that most high school history teachers go by the first name “coach.” The idea behind this adage is that anyone can teach history.
School districts demand that their music teachers have a college degree in music and are certified to teach music. The same goes for foreign language teachers, art teachers, science teachers, English teachers, and math teachers. Yet, according to this study brought to my attention by Robert Townsend of the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, only 27% of public high school history teachers have a college major and a state certification in the subject.
Over the course of the last ten years I have been doing a lot of work with teachers. Townsend’s statistics confirm my anecdotal evidence. Most history teachers I encounter did not major in history. Instead, they majoed in social studies or social sciences, subjects that require a small smattering of history courses–perhaps two, maybe three.
Things get worse when we consider the qualifications of middle school teachers. Only 17% of middle school history teachers have a history major and a state certification. Over half of the middle school history teachers in the United States do not have a history major or a certification in history.
So not only are public schools eliminating history from the curriculum, but when history IS taught, it is likely taught by someone without a history degree or certification in the subject. (Not all states have a history certification).
This information tells us that we have a long way to go in trying to convince school districts and state boards of education that history is more than just the memorization of “one damn thing after another.” It takes training–training in the discipline of history–to excel at teaching a primary source, getting students to think historically, and having them think about things like complexity, contingency, causation, change over time, and context.
Let’s keep working on this…