The Training of History Teachers: A Twitterstorm

I wrote this tweet in the midst of a great discussion with history teachers (K-16) that spontaneously broke out last night on Twitter.  Much of the discussion revolved around how colleges and universities train history teachers and whether or not they are doing it effectively.  By my account we had over 50 teachers participate.

For those of you who are interested, we collected all (or most) of the tweets using Storify. You can read them all here.

Julie Guthrie, a New Jersey middle-school history teacher who I had the privilege of getting to know last week during our Gilder-Lehrman Princeton Seminar, has suggested that the conversation continue at #historyteacherchat  I will try to jump in at this hashtag whenever I get the chance.

Quote of the Day

The purpose of college…is to turn adolescents into adults.  You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.  That is the true education: accept no substitutes.  The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity.  If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed.  

–William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, p. 87.

History Teachers Who Did Not Study History in College

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…

What Can Low-Income, Minority, Urban 16-Year-Olds Learn From the Great Books?

Tamara Mann teaches in the “Freedom and Citizenship Program” at Columbia University. The program is directed by American Studies scholar Casey Blake and brings low-income high school students to the Columbia campus during the summer to read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, DuBois, Dewey, King, and other authors.  In a piece at Inside Higher Ed, Mann discusses how this program has transformed her and her students. Here is a taste:

As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.

Sam Wineburg on Historical Thinking

I always need to remind myself of this quote by Wineburg.  I have it on my office door.

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

"Education and Economics are Essentially Incompatible"

St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD

This is the belief of Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He explains further in a recent Washington Post article.   Of course St. John’s prides itself on offering a purely liberal arts curriculum focused on the Great Books.

Here is a taste:

Begin with the idea of economics as the science of scarcity. The price of a commodity is largely dependent on its relative scarcity. Economic value increases when a commodity becomes scarce, and a commodity that is not scarce will become scarce if it is distributed widely and used up indiscriminately. Scarcity is basic to the world view of economics—so much so that the language of economics speaks as though scarcity and value are inseparable.
The things that matter most in education, though, do not fit this paradigm. They are not scarce, and yet they are extremely valuable—indeed they are among the most valuable in human life. They do not become scarce by being shared. Instead, they expand and grow the more they are shared.
One of these things is knowledge. Knowledge has never been exhausted by spreading it to more and more people. Today, it is more abundant than at any time in the past, and it reproduces more prolifically as it is shared. Moreover, technology has made it possible to store knowledge efficiently and to access it cheaply. No wonder that the economic paradigm is having difficulty capturing and domesticating it into a well-behaved economic commodity.
This is disconcerting for institutions that think of themselves primarily as providers of information. If the knowledge is out there, freely accessible, why then should anyone pay large sums of money to a knowledge gatekeeper—let alone go into debt? Today, the confrontation between free technological access and proprietary gate-keeping is leading to turmoil about new models of delivery in higher education.
But the idea that a college or university is a purveyor of information is a misplaced economic metaphor. Education is not information transfer. The educated college graduate is not simply the same person who matriculated four years earlier with more information or new skills. The educated graduate is a different person—one who has developed the innate human capacity for learning, to the point of controlling it. The educated graduate is an independent learner, able to seek out answers to whatever questions arise, and able to direct his or her own learning in accordance with the challenges that life presents in the circumstances of his or her own life.
The maturation of the student—not information transfer—is the real purpose of colleges and universities. Of course, information transfer occurs during this process. One cannot become a master of one’s own learning without learning something. But information transfer is a corollary of the maturation process, not its primary purpose. This is why assessment procedures that depend too much on quantitative measures of information transfer miss the mark. It is entirely possible for an institution to focus successfully on scoring high in rankings for information transfer while simultaneously failing to promote the maturation process that leads to independent learning.

A 103-Year-Old Reflects on Education

During the final few years of my grandfather’s life my brother Chris (a plumber living in New Jersey) spent several days a week with him.  Their regular meetings included eating meals (Chris liked to bring over a pizza on Sunday nights), watching old movies, listening to old music, and talking about life.  Occasionally Chris would turn on his cell phone and record parts of the conversation.

My grandfather came to the United States from Italy in 1913 at the age of three.  He spent most of his adult life delivering beer for two Newark breweries:  Krueger and Pabst Blue Ribbon.  He spent most of his life driving a beer truck on three different one-day routes: Newark to Albany, Newark to Wilmington, Delaware, and Newark to Riverhead, Long Island.

I wrote about doing an oral history interview with my grandfather here.

In this video, my grandfather (who passed away earlier this year at the age of 103) discusses his lack of formal education.  I have done my best to transcribe it below.  (At times his voice is hard to make out because one of his favorite songs, “The Old Lamplighter” is playing in the background).


Chris:  “I am not as smart as you.”

Grandpa: “That’s not true,  You’re a hell of a lot smarter than I ever was.”

Chris: (Laughs)

Grandpa:  “I was probably smarter in terms of strength, but as far as mentality, I didn’t have any.  But I did a lot driving.  I picked up a lot of stuff on the road–different distributors driving from Albany down to Wilmington, Delaware, out to Long Island.  I picked up a lot of stuff.  It’s nothing like you going to school or college, nothing like that.  Plus the fact: what am I going to do with the added knowledge?  I have no use for it.  If it comes to me, I’ll accept it, but I’m not going out seeking it.”

Chris: “I got ya.”

Grandpa:  “I hope you understand what I am trying to say.  I know I sound really old.”

Chris: “I understand what you’re saying.”

Grandpa: “Yea”

Chris: “You let your life experience dictate what you learned and what you didn’t.”

Granpda: “That’s what I have, I have the experiences, I got out there, I make a living.”

Chris: Sure, yea.

Gettysburg College President Responds to Obama’s Rating System

Obama’s plan to rank colleges and universities has sent college administrators on the warpath.  One of the more concise and effective responses has come from Gettysburg College president Janet Morgan Riggs.  Here is her “appeal” to Obama:

I share and applaud President Obama’s interest in promoting value and affordability in higher education, as well as increasing opportunities for low- and middle-income students and families. I also applaud the concept of ratings — not rankings. As the administration develops its strategy for assessing college performance, I ask them to keep in mind the following points:

-The breadth of educational offerings we provide in our country demands an evaluation system that takes into account a variety of institutional missions and student demographics. Indeed, that variety is one of the great strengths of the American system of higher education.

-Post-graduate success is contingent upon more than income. Careers in public service, non-profit sector, and teaching are integral to our communities. Ratings that put too much emphasis on graduate earnings could dissuade institutions from encouraging their students to pursue careers that are of great value to our communities.

I have to presume that President Obama recognizes that for many students, there’s more to college than gaining the credentials for their first job–especially as many of today’s students will require an education that prepares them for engaged citizenship and a series of careers throughout their lifetimes. As President Obama and his administration refine the details of their plan, I urge them to consider the value of an education that provides that flexibility.

–Janet Morgan Riggs, Gettysburg College President

From the Harrisburg Patriot-News

Ph.Ds in the High School Classroom

Stanford University will pay for humanities graduate students who want to pursue careers as high school teachers.  Here is a taste of an article at Inside Higher Ed:

The plan consists of a new course offering that will expose graduate students to humanities issues in high school pedagogy and curriculum, and a promise by the School of Humanities and Sciences to fully fund each humanities Ph.D. admitted to the competitive Stanford Teacher Education Program in the Graduate School of Education.

Over at Northwest History, Larry Cebula thinks it is a bad idea:

The Stanford plan is terrible in all kinds of ways. High school social studies jobs are already scarce, and it is not clear if a PhD will make a job seeker more competitive or less. While a broad knowledge is absolutely necessary for a good high school teacher, the hyper-specialization and research focus of a doctoral program is not a path to that broad knowledge. The time commitment is enormous–perhaps 7 or 8 years to the PhD (though Stanford is trying to cut this to 5) and then another 2 for the education degree–for a job that you might have landed with an undergraduate degree. And as a Facebook friend of mine said when I shared the article, “Hope they can coach a sport.”

The real problem of course, is the overproduction of PhDs in humanities fields. Year after year, and despite the warnings, thousands of your people come to places like Stanford to earn a PhD with the unlikely goal of becoming college professors. “The primary goal of Stanford’s Department of History’s graduate program is the training of scholars. Most students who receive doctorates in the program will go on to teach at colleges or universities,” Stanford tells its prospective history graduate students, offering a link to “placements.” The link is broken.

Read Cebula’s entire post here.


Sharon Liao is a history major at Columbia University who is concerned that elite colleges and universities are discouraging graduates from pursuing careers as K-12 teachers.  Here is a taste of her article at The Washington Post:

Working at a campus calling center this year, I spoke on the phone with hundreds of Columbia alumni, many of whom work in finance, health care, law or media. My elite, expensive school tells me in subtle ways that the “best” students pursue those sorts of fields. No matter how noble it may be to educate tomorrow’s leaders, or how accomplished an individual teacher may be, that person will never earn the social prestige or compensation that professionals do in many other fields.

Alumni who had gone into teaching asked whether I really want to teach or had considered the likely disrespect, insufficient pay, long hours and lack of autonomy that go with the job.

In short, I’m being scared out of teaching by teachers. And it seems reasonable to ask: Who wants to pursue a career in which they won’t be appropriately respected or compensated? 

On one hand, it is shame that some of the best college students in the country are not considering careers in education. This does not surprise me.  Fewer and fewer undergraduates seem to be devoting themselves to selfless lives in service of the public good.  Why teach when you can make much more money doing something else?  I wonder how much this has to do with increasing narcissism among the millennial generation.

On the other hand, young people may be discouraged from teaching by an educational system that has replaced classroom creativity and intellectual inquiry with standardized tests and state requirements.

Introducing "Reckless Historians"

Whenever I teach The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin I spend some time talking about The Junto–Franklin’s club for mutual improvement.  Here is how Franklin describes the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

Several years ago I suggested that we need more Junto’s in our colleges and universities. Here is part of what I wrote in that post:

I usually teach the Autobiography once a year and I always make a point of emphasizing this passage. I ask my students to consider the possibility of leaving history class and joining a group of fellow students in an extended conversation about the ideas discussed that day. Most students have never really pondered such a concept. The thought of going back to their dorms and discussing the impact of industrialization on rural life in the nineteenth century is an absurd one. For them college is about getting a degree or developing some kind of practical skill that they could use to make a living. In such an economic climate as the one in which we live today, to suggest that students should spend time discussing ideas in a Junto-like fashion seems useless or at least a bad use of one’s time.

My Junto sermon ends by explaining to my students how a truly liberally educated person needs to be engaged with the world of ideas. I expound on how ideas have social consequences and can be useful in real life. Ideas can often motivate people to serve others and the common good, a thought that I hope has some appeal among my Christian students. I then, in good Puritan homiletical style, hit them with the “application” by exhorting them to start a Junto of their own. I reinforce the message of this sermon throughout the semester. Whenever we run across a big idea (which is basically every class period), I finish class by telling the students to “continue the discussions in their Juntos.” The remark usually gets a laugh as students pack up their books, but that is about it.

Is it too much to ask that students take the ideas they learn in class and make a conscious and deliberate effort to converse about them away from the classroom? I know today’s students are extremely busy, but Franklin and his Junto managed to put aside a small amount of time each week for this kind activity. Students can find plenty of time for Facebook, Myspace, weekend road trips, and video-games. Why not ideas?

I know of several groups of students who have formed Juntos after reading the Autobiography.  During my first several years at Messiah College, a group of students met weekly in the college snack shop.  Another group of students at Northwestern College formed a Junto that read, among other works, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  And over the years a few more Juntos were created by Messiah history majors.

The latest Junto is made up of a group of sophomore history majors at Messiah College.  They call themselves “Reckless Historians” and have created a blog by the same name.  If you are an undergraduate historian, a history major, or simply someone with a passion for learning more about the past, I would encourage you to check them out.

Great Britain’s History Wars

When it comes to pundits and politicians decrying the lack of historical knowledge among young people, there is nothing new under the sun.  Writing at The Times Literary Supplement, David Cannadine, author of the recent The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences and The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, reminds us of this fact in the context of the debates over the history curriculum in British schools:

…there have been constant complaints about the teaching of history for as long as it has been taught: that young people know too little about the national past; that they are ignorant about dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens; that (alternatively) the rote learning of dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens is excruciatingly boring and is not the same as history; and that there was once a golden age when history was better taught, and when boys and girls did know about the national past, from which there has been a recent and catastrophic decline. Across the whole of the twentieth century, there was scarcely a decade when points such as these were not being made. And when these criticisms were levelled, as they have again been recently, it was usually in complete ignorance of the fact that they had already been made several times before. Ironically enough, the criticisms of history teaching in English schools, made by people who, presumably, think history is important, are almost invariably lacking in any historical perspective. 

Cannadine has offered a vision for history in British schools that is different from the one offered by Secretary of Education Michael Gove.  Read the entire article to learn more, from Cannadine’s perspective, about the differences.

Here is a taste of Cannadine’s proposal:

Yet if the National Curriculum is not the problem, then what is? Our answer was clear, namely that since the 1900s, insufficient time has been given to history in the classroom: hence the rushed and superficial treatment of unrelated subjects; the lack of a firm chronological sequence and narrative structure; the difficulty of giving adequate attention to the big picture; and the risk of repetition at Key Stage Three and at Key Stage Four for those taking the subject at GCSE. Reforming the National Curriculum, we concluded, would not address these problems, and the only way to do so would be to make history compulsory to the age of sixteen. That had been Kenneth Baker’s original intention when he devised the National Curriculum; it would integrate the National Curriculum with GCSE, and it would align our teaching practices with those of other Western countries. By gaining more time for history in the classroom, the problems of superficiality, chronology, incoherence and repetition could finally be confronted. That was our recommendation, which was welcomed by professional historians and schoolteachers, by Ofsted and the Historical Association, and by the Independent and the Daily Telegraph. Our proposal was also endorsed by an Expert Panel set up by the Department of Education and by the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History, who urged that “history should be part of a curriculum as a core subject to sixteen”.

"Let the Teachers Teach"

David Patten, an award-winning history teacher and writer, has a solution to the problems facing public school education in America. This is yet another sad story about the way testing is destroying the teaching of history.  An approach to teaching history that relies entirely on the current form of standardized testing will not be effective in teaching historical thinking skills.  Here is a taste of Patten’s piece at History News Network:

From the moment I was hired to teach history and government at a public high school to the moment, years later, when I walked away, I had the audacity to believe that I had been hired for my expertise. I taught the entire range of students, seventh through twelfth grades. No matter what the age or ability level, I actually believed that I had something to convey to my students and that I could truly refine thought and inspire learning. And why not? I graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA in two majors. I was already a published writer and had traveled extensively. Given those brazen assumptions, to me the textbook was a mere afterthought, something to reference every now and then. State and district curriculums were only skeletons and I would flesh them out. My students would learn through highly detailed learning packets hundreds of pages of learning packets that I wrote. I also created slide shows and later on PowerPoints which dovetailed the information contained in the packets. These tools formed the basis of class discussions, thus touching all the learning styles. The students read the packets, learned visually, and learned orally. It did not stop there. Projects that I created became a hallmark for many of my classes. My students would write historical fiction stories along with modern and historical position papers. They would participate in “great debates”, their own teaching project, an historical magazine project, and a world geographic magazine project. Last, there were the required reading books.  Books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Son of the Morning Star, The Prince, and Treblinka were read and thoroughly analyzed through lengthy class discussions…

It came upon us slowly at first, as most evil does. States such as Florida and Texas had been applying the new methodology for a few years. Ohio, my state, would soon follow. We heard rumors, had a few discussions concerning what it all meant, and merely wondered what impact if any the testing would have. We soon found out just how serious it all really was.  We endured district-wide meetings where administrators admonished us as to the critical importance of these fifty-question tests. Everything was going to ride upon student success or failure on these exams. Results were going to be published, levies would fail, and jobs would be lost unless we scored well. The meaning was truly driven home when a normally reticent assistant superintendent began jumping up and down on the stage while screaming into a microphone, “Ram it down their throats!” She later apologized for the outburst, but the message was clear; testing would direct the curriculum, dictate the programs, and determine the future of our students and school district.

Are Evangelical Homeschoolers Embracing Evolution?

Florida homeschool convention

According to David Wheeler, author of a recent post at The Atlantic, more and more evangelical homeschooling parents want their children exposed to evolution.  At least one publisher–Christian Schools International out of Grand Rapids, Michigan–has responded with homeschooling and Christian school textbooks that do not “attempt to discredit the theory of evolution.”

Here is a taste:

This staunch rejection of modern science tends to characterize today’s leading homeschool textbooks. For example, Science 4 Christian Schools, a homeschool textbook published by Bob Jones University Press, doesn’t mince words when it comes to evolution and Christian faith. “People who accept the Bible believe that God made everything,” the book states. “They call God’s description of how things began the Creation Model. Those who disregard the Bible believe instead that everything got here by itself. They call this description of how things began the Evolution Model.”

The assertion that anyone who believes in evolution “disregards” the Bible offends many evangelicals who want their children to be well-versed in modern science. Jen Baird Seurkamp, an evangelical who homeschools her children, avoids textbooks that discredit evolution. “Our science curriculum is one currently used in public schools,” she says. “We want our children to be educated, not sheltered from things we are afraid of them learning.”

The rising number of homeschool families striving to reconcile belief in God with today’s scientific consensus has attracted the attention of at least one publisher — Christian Schools International in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Most science textbooks that attempt to present the content from a Christian perspective also attempt to discredit the theory of evolution,” says Ken Bergwerff, a science curriculum specialist at Christian Schools International. “Some do it discreetly; others are quite blatant. The CSI science curriculum clearly presents science from a Christian perspective, but does not attempt to discredit the theory of evolution. The content presents God as the author of all of creation, no matter how he did it or when he did it.”

Christianity Today magazine has followed-up with a story of its own in which it notes that Ken Ham, the nation’s leading young-earth creationist and founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, has been disinvited from several homeschool conferences for “unnecessary, ungodly, and mean-spirited’ comments about evangelical evolutionists.

Now it is time for the evangelical homeschool movement to offer a more balanced view of American history than the usual fare offered by David Barton and other Christian nationalists.

More on the Humanities and STEM

Last week my post on STEM disciplines and Obama’s State of the Union Address got some attention in the blogosphere.  To follow-up, I want to call your attention to Danielle Allen’s piece in today’s Washington Post.  Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, warns against becoming a “nation of technocrats.”  Here is a taste:

Let’s not forget that you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and that reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.

You also can’t excel at citizenship if you can’t read, write or speak well, or understand the complexity of the world and think historically. History helps us understand the features of our worlds that are changeable and that require either reform, because they are damaging, or protection, because they are valuable but vulnerable.

Read the rest here.

HT: James Grossman at AHA Today

What Were People Tweeting During the State of the Union Address?

My post from this morning focused on the parts of Obama’s State of the Union Address that dealt with education.  I was apparently not the only one who had something to say about Obama’s proposals in this area.  According to Pew Research, “Education” was the issue most discussed last night on Twitter.

Someone on my Twitter feed chided John Boehner for wearing a button-collared shirt with a suit.  I do this all the time.  I had no idea it was a fashion no-no.

Apparently the button-collar with the suit is not fashionable

The Antihistory Presidency

obama-and-historyThere is a lot to digest from last night’s State of the Union Address.  The pundits will be out in force today talking about all of the new initiatives Obama proposed, particularly the stuff he had to say about immigration and gun control.  And how about 102-year old Desiline Victor? As the grandson of a 102-year voter, Desiline’s story tugged at my heartstrings.

Obama also talked about education last night.  And once again, he celebrated the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Here is a quote from the speech:

Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.  We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math–the skill’s today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

We need young people who are trained in the STEM disciplines.  But we also need our president to get behind the humanities, especially history.

Obama’s statement that STEM disciplines provide skills that “today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future” is only partially true.  Anyone who attended the recent Wake Forest conference “Rethinking Success” (or watched the conference presentation online) knows that companies and employers are just as interested in humanities and liberal arts majors as they are college graduates trained in STEM fields.  In fact, some of them are MORE interested in humanities majors than those trained in traditional STEM disciplines.

Obama’s support for STEM last night also extended to higher education. He called for a new “College Scorecard” that would reward colleges and universities that provide greater access to “the education and training that today’s jobs require.”

Again, I have no problem with colleges training students in STEM disciplines.  I work at a college that does a good job at this kind of training.  But I also teach at a college committed to the humanities and the broader liberal arts–disciplines that teach skills, ways of thinking, and ways of being that are essential to the cultivation of a civil society and a thriving democracy.

Obama’s speech last night–at least the parts dealing with education–sounded eerily similar to the Republican governI do not have the time or the space here to defend the the value of history and humanities.  If you are a regular reader of he Way of Improvement Leads Home you know that I have done this many times before. (In addition to the previous link see my piece at Patheos:  “Education for a Democracy” or take a quick glance at my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series)

I will, however, call your attention to the irony of it all.  In his public addresses Obama has effectively used history to make his political points.  Ever since his famous breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention he has been making appeals to the Declaration of Independence.  Last night he appealed, on multiple occasions, to the ideals and values that define America.  He referenced the responsibilities of the Congress to place the nation over partisan interest.  He talked about the meaning of citizenship. He asked Americans to join him in writing the next “great chapter” in national history.

Obama must be aware that Americans cannot respond to these exhortations without knowing something about the past.  How can our children write the next “great chapter” in national history when they have little knowledge of the previous chapters?

Obama’s historic rhetoric soars.  He has appealed to the civic humanism of the founding fathers and their commitment to the common good.  In his Second Inaugural Address he talked about Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall.  But I wonder how many young people knew the meaning of these references.  And I wonder how many will know them in ten years. If his track record of funding history in schools is any indication, I don’t think he cares.

Barack Obama has done virtually nothing to promote a renewed sense of civic identity through the study of history.  Just ask the 2010 Washington-era teacher of the year Kenneth Bernstein.  In a recent piece in The Washington Post he decried the lack of civic education in our schools.  Rather than addressing this issue head-on, Obama has cut funding for the successful Teaching American History program and has defined educational reform entirely in terms of STEM disciplines.

Barack Obama is no friend of history.  If I am looking for an ally on this front I will take George W. Bush any day of the week.