Don’t Know Much About History

David Barton recently appeared on the Glenn Beck radio program to talk about history education.  He argues that “the progressives” are to blame for lack of student knowledge in American history today.

Listen here:

When I heard Barton imply that history students prior to 1920 had a solid grasp of American history, I thought about the opening pages of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Wineburg writes:

Identify the source of the following statement: 

“Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”

The above characterization of high schools students historical knowledge comes from:

(a).  Ravitch and Finn’s report on the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in which they argued that students’ test scores place them “at risk of being gravely handicapped by…ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood.”

(b). The 1976 New York Times test of American youth, published under the banner “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.”

(c).  Reports on the 1942 New York Times history exam that prompted Allan Nevins to write that high school students are “all too ignorant of American history.”

(d).  None of the above

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.  This quotation comes from neither the 1987 a18c6-wineburgNational Assessment nor from any of the earlier reports.  To find its source we have to go back to 1917, long before television, the social studies lobby, the teaching of “thinking skills,” the breakup of the family, the growth of the Internet, or any of the other factors we use to explain low test scores.  Yet the conclusions of J. Carleton Bell and David McCollum, who in 1917 tested 668 Texas high school students and published their findings in the fledgling Journal of Educational Psychology, differ little from those of subsequent commentators.  Considering the vast differences between those who attended high school in 1917 and the near-universal enrollments of today, the stability of students’ ignorance is amazing.  The whole world has turned on its head, but one thing has stayed the same: Kids don’t know history.

Why Historical Thinking is Essential in the #AgeofTrump

Why Study History CoverThis morning two commentators were on CNN talking about how a gunman, claiming he was investigating a fake news story about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, fired shots in a Washington D.C. pizzeria.

Yes, you read that correctly, a guy acted on a fake news story and could have killed someone.  Perhaps he was mentally unstable.  Perhaps he was one of the many people who feel empowered to do this kind of thing in the #ageoftrump. Or perhaps he was completely incapable of deciphering the difference between a fake news story and a real one.  To make matters worse, CNN is reporting that the son of Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for National Security Adviser,  apparently created this story. Flynn himself has promoted similar stories.

In the course of the on-air discussion, both CNN commentators tried to say something about the importance of truth, evidence-based arguments, critical examination of news stories and other documents, understanding the context of news stories, and considering the source of such narratives.  Needless to say, I perked up as I watched these commentators desperately search for a language to describe this problem.

Let me suggest that the language they are looking for is the language of historical thinking.  Consider the recent report published by Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group. Read the entire thing here.  It is very rich and it should be read by all teachers, especially history teachers.

I remain convinced that the study of history is the best way to teach kids and college students how to read.  If Wineburg and these CNN commentators are correct, the study of history, and the thinking and reading skills that come with it, may be our best hope. Perhaps the #ageoftrump will finally wake us up to the need for this kind of thinking.   I hope so.

No Empathy for Trump?


Darryl Hart of Hillsdale College has been on my case ever since I announced that I signed Historians Against Trump.

First, let me say that I have great respect for Darryl as a scholar and a historian and I have a lot of fun engaging with him.  He may not remember this, but in 1992 he served as the outside reader on my church history M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am grateful for his recent review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in last week’s Wall Street Journal.  I appreciate the attention he shows to my work, especially what I write at this blog.

In today’s post at his blog, Old Life, Hart wonders why I have not criticized Hillary Clinton as much as Donald Trump.  He is not the only one who has brought this up.

Here is what Hart wrote today in response to my recent post on Trump, evangelicals and the Supreme Court.

Shouldn’t historians, because they have seen this stuff before, not be surprised or outraged by Trump? Might they even imagine through empathy what it feels like to find Trump attractive? Not saying I do, mind you. I just like to point out how one-sided his opponents can be and how they don’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Like this?

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Fair enough. But when oh when will that point also be used against Hillary who seems to have a little trouble with the truth?

The people are calling. Historical understanding doesn’t seem to be answering.

I think Hart is right about this, but a few things are worth noting:

It is indeed true that I have criticized Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.  I plead guilty.  But I hope Darryl and others will show some empathy for my explanation.

First, I pick on Trump because many of my readers are evangelicals, I myself still identify as evangelical (although it is getting harder every day), and I study American evangelicalism. Sometimes I write in an attempt to understand why so many of my fellow evangelicals are flocking to Trump.   Sometimes I write in an attempt to challenge my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply, perhaps more Christianly, about their support of Trump.  I am very interested in evangelicals and politics–past and present.  When massive numbers of evangelicals start supporting Hillary Clinton I will write about it.

Second, as a historian I have some serious issues with the Trump campaign. (I also have issues with the Clinton campaign, which I referenced here).  It seems to me that Trump’s campaign is built upon an appeal to the past.  He wants to “Make America Great AGAIN.” Such a campaign slogan invites historical reflection.  Clinton’s campaign also operates within a historical narrative.  It is basically the same progressive view of history Barack Obama has been teaching us over the course of the last four years.  We need to unpack that as well.  (Or at least call attention to it since academic historians have done a pretty good job of unpacking it in virtually everything they write).

But it does seem that conservative candidates (if you can call Trump conservative) are more prone to historical error than progressive candidates.  This is because conservative candidates tend to run on the language of reclamation and restoration.  They are interested in the past as something more than just a thing to overcome.

I thus oppose Trump as an evangelical Christian and as a historian.

As an evangelical Christian I understand why my fellow evangelicals support him.  I empathize with the moral logic behind the endorsements of Trump made by James Dobson, Wayne Grudem or Eric Metaxas.  It makes sense to me.  I just don’t agree with it or sympathize with it.

As a historian I think we need to consider what Sam Wineburg has described as the difference between history and historical thinking.  Some of my historian colleagues oppose Trump because they see in him and his candidacy dark traits from the past. Trump is the new Hitler.  Trump is the new George Wallace.  Trump is the new Andrew Jackson. Sometimes these analogies are useful and interesting, and they should definitely continue to be made, but historians must be careful and cautious when comparing people living in a different era with people  living today.  The past is a foreign country.  Any historical analogy will be imperfect.  As a historian I am not opposed to Trump because I have special knowledge of the past that can be easily applied, in a comparative fashion, to 2016 presidential politics.

But having said that, let’s remember that historians think about the world in a way that should lead them to consider Trump’s candidacy reprehensible. Historians make evidenced-based arguments, they realize the complexity of human life, they are aware of the limited nature of historical knowledge, and, yes, they practice empathy.  As a historian, I oppose Trump because he uses his platform to strengthen the idea that historical thinking–the kind of mental work that we spend our lives defending because they believe it is good for American civil society and democracy–is irrelevant.

So back to Trump and empathy.  Yes, let’s try to understand the historical and cultural factors that prompt people to support him.  Darryl Hart may or may not be happy to know that I have two good books on my nightstand right now.  They are J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  I should also add that nearly all of my extended family–parents and siblings-are voting for Trump.  I get it. Maybe, like Vance, I need to write a bit more about my own background.

Did the Idea of “Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake” Die With the Internet?


This article recently came across one of my social media feeds.  It is written by Byron L. Grigsby, the president of Moravian College, an excellent liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Grigsby writes:

Vocation. This is a word with deep and important significance. Liberal Arts. This is an ideal of education with an equally deep set of meanings. Liberal arts colleges already do a great job developing a diverse group of socially responsible, critical thinkers, but they must start guiding students to their true vocation. For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.

I don’t mean vocation in the way it is used today, a trade, but rather by its original meaning, “to find one’s calling.” So, how is this achieved while staying true to the foundations of a liberal arts education?

The answer is deceptively simple; liberal arts institutions can no longer stand pat with traditional models alone. They must start to embrace career exploration, technology, and professional programs.

Read the entire piece at a website called University Business.

I need to begin my analysis of this article with a caveat.  I am not opposed to helping liberal arts students think about what they can do with their liberal arts degrees.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home knows that I have been committed to these kinds of efforts.  I devoted a whole chapter in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past to career options for history students and I have devoted extensive time at this blog to my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series.

But I was troubled by the way Grigsby framed his piece, particularly this sentence: “For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.”

If I read him correctly, Grigsby seems to think that a liberal arts education is simply the accumulation of knowledge–information that can easily be found online through a simple Google search.  This is the equivalent of the idea that the study of history is simply the memorization of facts.  Frankly, I am surprised that Grigsby would say such a thing. His bio suggests that he is a humanities person–a scholar of early modern British literature.

By making the leap directly from Internet knowledge to career development, Grigsby misses what is perhaps the most important contribution that liberal arts colleges can make to democratic life–training in the ability to think critically about the information found on the Internet.

I thought about Grigsby’s piece as I read Sam Wineburg‘s article “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.”  Many of you know Wineburg.  He teaches history teachers how to think historically from his post at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford History Education Group.  He has written several books including one my personal favorites, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  His appearance on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast is our most popular episode (#4).

In his latest article, which is adopted from his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, Wineburg approaches our information-saturated way of life from a different perspective than Grigsby.

He writes:

Think back to claims that our president was born in Kenya. This was a claim embraced by many prominent people, including a current Republican candidate for president. And there on YouTube was an actual tape, a tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s grandmother, being interviewed by an American cleric about the circumstances of our president’s birth.

So I wanted to do an experiment with the generation often referred to as digital natives. I was asked to give a talk at a highly regarded independent school. The administration had assembled their sophomore and junior classes, over 100 students. I asked these kids how many of them had heard that President Obama had been born in Kenya. Sophisticated and well-healed, they looked at me as if I were from outer space.

But then, knowing teenagers as I do, I appealed to their bravado. “I assume,” I said, “that if you are so certain, you all must have examined the evidence. I assume all of you have heard the tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s paternal grandmother, talking about being ‘present’ at her grandson’s birth. Just so I can be sure, please raise your hand if you’ve listened to this tape.” No hands went in the air. “Soooooo,” I taunted them, “you’re judging a claim without looking at the evidence?” And then—those of you who work with teenagers will recognize this move—I asked them, “Are you open-minded or closed?” I’ve yet to meet a teenager who admits to close-mindedness.

I played the tape. Sarah Obama, a woman who had never left Kenya, claimed that she was “present” at her grandson’s birth. Someone’s a liar. Either an 86-year-old woman or the President of the United States. Now, with a little bit of nudging, students started to motivate some questions. Had the tape been doctored? No, it had been examined forensically. It was authentic. What about the material that comes before and after the part I played–a lovely question, very pertinent to historical thinking. Another wanted to know if the translation into English was correct, an astute question because Sarah Obama was speaking Swahili, not her native language. What happens to this word “present” as it moves from Luo, Sarah Obama’s native language, to her broken Swahili and then into English? Does it mean she was physically present? Or, that she merely heard of her grandson’s birth?

“What else would we want to know about the tape?” I pressed on. But it seemed that I had exhausted the bank of student questions. Despite the fact that many of these digital natives were headed to top colleges, they were still babes in the woods when it came to asking rudimentary questions of historical thinking: Who authored this tape, how did it come to be? Who was this Bishop Ron McCrae, the head of the Anabaptist Church of North America, the man heard speaking to Sarah Obama’s interpreter? How would we find out? Such questions-the A’s, B’s, and C’s of historical thinking— were anything but intuitive to this group of bright teenagers.

Let me suggest, then, that it is one thing to be a digital native and quite another to be digitally intelligent. Long before the Internet, Thomas Jefferson argued for the wisdom of the yeoman farmer, a person who would think, discern, and come to reasoned conclusions in the face of conflicting information. Today, when practically everything has changed about how we get our information, what does informed citizenship mean? 

This what a liberal arts education should be doing–teaching students how to think and evaluate evidence so that they can be functioning members of a democratic society.  This is what historians do for a living.  Yes, vocation is important. Yes, careers are important. But the notion that liberal arts colleges should focus on these things because all the information we need can be found on the Internet just seems naive and completely out of touch.

Wineburg concludes:

Back in the analog stone-age we could rely on factchecked newspapers to stay well-informed. Watching the news at night, we could rely on the major outlets and their anchors to save us from error. Peter Jennings. Tom Brokaw. Brian Williams. (Okay, maybe not Brian Williams.)

What once fell on the shoulders of editors, fact-checkers, and subject matter experts now falls on the shoulders of each and every one of us. But there’s a problem with this new reality. As the journalist John H. McManus reminds us, in a democracy the ill-informed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed. The future of the republic hangs in the balance.

Reliable information is to civic intelligence what clean air and clean water are to public health. Long before the Internet, long before blogs, before Instagram, before Twitter and Yik Yak, James Madison understood what was at stake when people cannot tell the difference between credible information and shameless bluff. “A popular government,” Madison wrote, “ without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Read Wineburg’s entire piece here.

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

a18c6-wineburgDuring all of the debate surrounding the “Historians Against Trump” movement (see the summary post at History News Network) I thought about our interview with Stanford education professor and historical thinking guru Sam Wineburg on Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.

In the course of the interview, our producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling asked Wineburg why kids should learn how to think historically.

Here is what Wineburg said:

Well, what’s the alternative to thinking like historians? Thinking like totalitarians?  Thinking like fascists?  Historical thinking is training for the mind, training to deal with the cacophonous voices of a democracy, training to think through a reasoned position that is supported by evidence.  The alternative is uninformed opinion, some of which we are experiencing right now with the claims of the leading contender for the Republican nomination who makes claims that cannot be supported at all, and yet people are credulous and believe in them and I think that is a testament to the failure of our educational system.

Listen to our interview with Wineburg here (Episode 4).  I especially recommend it for K-12 teachers.  

Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

A few days ago I was having dinner with a local history teacher who had just listened to Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Some of you may recall that this was our interview on K-12 education and historical thinking with Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. We have been getting a lot of response to this episode from history teachers. For example, yesterday I received this tweet from a history teacher.

During our dinner conversation, my teacher friend said how much he appreciated historical podcasts.  As is the case with most teachers, he was very busy and did not have much time during the school year to stay connected to things going on in the field. Podcasts were his lifeline to the discipline since he could listen to them on his daily commute to school.

Others get their dose of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast on their morning run or their daily workout at the gym or health club.  I know of one fan of the podcast who listens while he is washing dishes!

If you have yet to listen to the podcast perhaps Episode 8 might entice you to download, subscribe, or write a review at ITunes.  Our guests are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon Reed, and University of Virginia history professor and Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf.  They are the authors of the just-released Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

During the course of the episode I also share some thoughts about the complexity of the past and the uses of Jefferson’s legacy by Christian Right activist David Barton.


Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

podcast-icon1On Tuesday we will drop Episode 6 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  It will focus on the ways we narrate the past. Our guest will be Nate DiMeo, the host, chief storyteller, and producer of the wildly popular podcast The Memory Palace.

While you are waiting for this episode to drop, I want to encourage you to get caught up with past episodes, subscribe to the podcast, or write an ITunes review.

Here is where we have been so far:

Episode 0: We introduce the podcast and explain the meaning of phrase “the way of improvement leads home.”

Episode 1:  We talk with Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, about the power of history in American society and the twitter hashtag #everythinghasahistory

Episode 2: Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade reflects historically on this controversial issue in ways that will benefit listeners on both side of the debate.

Episode 3:  Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief at The Atlantic, dares us to be historians in public and offers some ways to think historically about the current presidential campaign.

Episode 4: Stanford professor and history education guru Sam Wineburg, the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, talks historical thinking, Common Core, and the Teaching American history grants

Episode 5:  We talk about “encountering the past” in and out of museums and historical sites with Tim Grove, Chief of Museum Education at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the author of A Grizzly in the Mail and other Adventures in American History

In addition to these interviews, all of our episodes include a conversation about history with producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling and a historical essay or story related to the theme of the episode.

Have You Listened to the Latest Episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

podcast-icon1Public historian Chris Graham has.

He has a nice review and analysis at his blog Whig Hill.  His post is entitled “Humility and Acts of Understanding.”  Here is a taste:

John Fea has a podcast and it is good. I’ve long been a fan of Professor Fea’s work, particularly his efforts to bridge the divide between disciplinary history and the public (in his case, chiefly, the evangelical public.) In the current episode Fea lays out approaches to history education that he has encountered in his work in the classroom and beyond: some folks want “just the facts,” others go for history as civics education, and many promote the value of historical thinking skills to life and society in general. These are not exclusive categories, but I prioritize the historical thinking aspect. I believe Fea does, too. You scratch the surface on him and you see the influence of Sam Wineburg, director of the Stanford History Education Group, interviewed in this latest episode. Fea calls the interview provocative and I suspect it’s because of Wineburg’s strident critiques of the Teaching American History program.

Read the rest here.

And don’t forget to subscribe, download episodes, and write a review at ITunes

A Rare Glimpse Into the Making of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast


If you have been following our Facebook and Twitter feeds you know that Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast will drop on Sunday at midnight.

The episode focuses on teaching history and our guest is Sam Wineburg, the Director of the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University and the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  It is an amazing interview and a MUST listen if you teach history in any capacity or just care about the role of history in American society.

It is a well-known fact that our producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling does very little work on the actual production of the podcast.  Much of it is done by his daughter Nilsa, as evidenced in the picture above.  As you may recall from Episode 0, Nilsa has long been a fixture of our podcast production meetings.  I should also add that she finds my loud New Jersey accent very soothing and comforting.

If you are new to The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast listen to past episodes here and at ITunes. Download, subscribe, tell a friend, share, and please consider writing a review. Help us build our audience!


Useable Pasts on Stage and Screen

“Hamilton” on Broadway

According to Ester Bloom, a writer at The Atlantic, Americans love historical stories, films, narratives, and plays that meet their personal and political needs.  She is right.  This is why Sam Wineburg called historical thinking an “unnatural” act.  We are wired to find something we need in the past–something that inspires us or helps us achieve present-day ends.  I made a strong argument along these lines in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and have been making this argument here at the blog and in my classes for years.

Here is a taste of Bloom’s article:

Liberals seem to prioritize historical titles that offer irreverence, complexity, and, sometimes, humor. While Republicans and Democrats alike may be found waiting in line in front of the Richard Rodgers Theater to enter the lottery for discounted tickets—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is one of the few subjects on which former Vice President Cheney and President Obama can publicly agree—Democrats seem to be more enthusiastic, given that they are using the show for fundraising purposes. And, before there was Hamilton, there was the off-Broadway (and briefly on-Broadway) sensation Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, wherein the famous frontiersman and seventh president was pilloried via comic rock opera.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has written that his research suggeststhat “liberals want to loosen things up, especially in ways that they believe will make more room for women, African Americans, gay people, and other oppressed groups to escape from traditional strictures, express themselves, and succeed.” In other words, the same kind of people who turn to satire for their news prefer their history to be inclusive and not taken too seriously…

Conservatives are also fans of civics, though they tend to come at the subject in a more sincere, goal-oriented fashion. One right-wing site, Liberty News, posits that forgetting the sacrifices made by the Founding Fathers “will ultimately lead to government dependence,” in which case, “ownership over our way of life will be transferred to the government.” A belief that the stakes are truly that high may be the reason that conservative pundits Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck have recently—and with immense success—repackaged themselves as earnest writers of a kind of history that venerates so-called Great Men.

Read the rest here.

History News Network: "South Dakota: Please Reconsider Your Decision to Dump Early American History"

Happy to report that History News Network is running my piece on South Dakota’s decision to stop teaching early American history in public schools:

In case you haven’t heard, the South Dakota Board of Education has dumped early American history from its K-12 curriculum.
When I heard about this decision, a quote from one of the great nineteenth-century observers of American life came to mind.  During the 1830s a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout the United States and studied the character of American society.  His observations would later be published in his Democracy in America—a work that is just as important to our national identity today as it was when it first appeared in 1835. 
In Chapter Two of Democracy in America Tocqueville laments the way that individualism—an idea at the heart of American democracy—destroys a citizen’s appreciation of the past. 
“Among democratic nations,” he wrote, “new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; those who will come after, no one has any idea; the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.” 
Tocqueville understood that sometimes in a democratic society we become so addicted to the present that we forget where we came from.  We lose touch with history—the subject that provides us with our identity as Americans. 
Now that early American history is no longer part of the curriculum, it is very unlikely that a student in the public schools of South Dakota will ever read Tocqueville’s quote. 
The decision of the South Dakota Board of Education seems to be based on the idea that early American history is not important because it occurred so long ago and has no relevance for the present.  The Board of Education seems to think that history is merely the memorization of dates, timelines, and names. 
The decision is also based on a very thin view of citizenship.  How can students understand what it means to be a citizen of South Dakota or the United States without understanding that everything that they encounter in the present is rooted in a historic context?  
History is more than memorization.  It teaches students that current events are contingent on the events that came before them.  History teaches us the root causes of the things that happen in our world today.  
When students learn about context, contingency, and causation they develop a deeper—more robust—understanding of the world around them.

Read the rest here.

Historians: How Does Research In Pedagogy Inform Your Teaching?

Ben Wright, a historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, challenges his fellow history professors to start reading scholarship related to pedagogy.  He even uses the label “anti-intellectual” to describe those professors who are unwilling to engage with such literature or who look upon this literature with condescension.

Here is a taste of his post at Teaching United States History:

I should confess that I came to the profession of “professing” after receiving an undergraduate training in “teaching.” In fact, this article takes me back to my undergraduate education and the whiplash I often felt when walking out of an educational psychology class and into a history course. I recall how impressed I was by the scholarly rigor of education researchers and the evidence they produced to indicate the difference between effective and ineffective instruction. And then I remember the bemusement I felt an hour later by realizing that my history professor clearly never read a word of this scholarship.
Ignorance is one thing, but outright hostility is quite another, and the tone of this article, and of some of the enthusiasm I’ve noticed around it, evinces a dismissal and even condescension to the academic fields of education research. I would even go so far as to call this attitude an anti-intellectualism. Is this outlook toward the academic study of education any less disrespectful and misguided than what we sometimes get from members of the public who feel that Bill O’Reilly’s study of Abraham Lincoln has the same measure of legitimacy as Eric Foner’s?
We all have a standard answer to the question, “how does your research inform your teaching?” but what would happen if if interviewees began asking, “how does research in pedagogy inform your teaching?” Our guild appears to hold the belief that learning how to teach is mostly a matter of general intelligence, experience, and hard work. Most of us receive little-to-no training in how to teach. We are thrust into teaching assistantships and expected to figure it out on the fly. And we do, but this trial by fire approach teaches us more how to survive and less how to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students. Discussions of learning outcomes, best practices, or education psychology too often get dismissed as administrator meddling or an academia adrift in lowering standards. The “tough love” approach epitomized in the article stands in for rigorous engagement with research.
Wright is right.  If we want more students to get excited about history we need to be more committed to teaching. And yes, this will require reading scholarship related to pedagogy.
Wright lists several places where historians might begin to explore this scholarship.  They include The Review of Higher Education, Review of Education Research, and Contemporary Educational Psychology.  These are probably all great journals that include articles that will make us become better teachers, but not every historian is going to have the time or inclination to read them.
But maybe historians will read literature on scholarship related specifically to teaching history–literature published in history journals, magazines, or history blogs and websites. Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, Caleb McDaniel, the folks responsible for The History Teacher, and others are doing great work on this front.  I know that Wright is familiar with this work.  
Rather than encouraging historians to tackle specialized pedagogy and education journals, I think the best we can expect is that more historians like Wright will emerge  to serve as brokers who are willing to bring the best of this literature to those of use who work in the history classroom.

Sam Wineburg on Writing

Anyone who has been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home, has been to one of my teacher seminars, or has taken a class with me at Messiah College, knows that I am a big fan of the work of Sam Wineburg.  

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Toor interviews Wineburg about his writing habits.  Toor mentions that Wineburg approached her for help in reaching popular audiences with his work.  What struck me the most about Wineburg’s request is that his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts has sold over 40,000 copies!  I would say that any book that sells 40,000 copies is reaching a public audience!  On the other hand, I am thrilled to learn Wineburg will be reaching even more readers in the future.  

Here is a taste of Toor’s interview:

Can you talk about your development as a writer?
Wineburg: My freshman tutor at Brown University was Steven Millhauser, then a doctoral student, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I arrived in Providence thinking I knew how to write. Millhauser put a quick end to that. To this day, one of his summary comments sits framed on my desk. A-minus was the grade, and his comment began, “A strong paper, carefully considered and forcefully argued.” But then came the line I’ll never forget: “The better you are, the more imperative it becomes to rid yourself of all the evidences of amateurishness, carelessness, and flawed education that your paper, good as it is, still reveals.” Mr. Millhauser — Mister is how we addressed him — taught me that the two most important tools a writer has are his ears. The most important things I learned about writing I learned during the first semester of my freshman year in college.
Over the years, I’ve had to learn to embrace my own voice. I had inklings of this understanding even as a high-school student, when I excelled at news writing for the school paper but felt less capable with human-interest stories. Experience has taught me to listen to my voice rather than trying to mimic others. It’s hard, because as humans we compare ourselves endlessly to others. We read terrific writing and say to ourselves, “Boy, I want to write like that.” And how I’ve tried, endlessly imitating voices that aren’t my own. Then, one day when reading a book by my favorite Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld, I came across these lines, “If there is meaning to the words of an author it is because he is true to himself, his voice, and his pace. His subject, his thesis are byproducts of his writing, not its essence.” These words sit framed on my desk as well.

Why History Majors Should Study Abroad

51+5s2KxXOLThis post from Kathryn Kaslow, a history major at Messiah College, recently appeared on our department blog “History on the Bridge.” Katy spent the Fall semester studying at Oxford.  This semester she is working hard as my research assistant on the American Bible Society book.  

Messiah College history majors cannot graduate without fulfilling an experiential learning requirement.  One of the ways of satisfying this requirement is to study in another country and take at least one history course.

Enjoy Katy’s post:

If there is one thing every history major should do before he or she graduates, it is study abroad.  After studying abroad in England last semester, I am convinced that in addition to being enriching, fun, cultural opportunities that can be used to enhance one’s résumé, study abroad experiences offer several unique takeaways for history majors in particular:
1) Here’s the obvious reason: If one is studying in a non-English-speaking country, study abroad is a prime opportunity to brush up on the language skills that are sometimes necessary for reading primary sources.  After all, there is no better way to learn a foreign language than to be immersed in it!
2) Sometimes studying abroad means being exposed to a different educational style.  When I studied abroad in England, instead of having lectures and exams, I was required to write between one and two essays each week and verbally debate the arguments presented in those essays with a tutor.  Participating in such a unique and writing-intensive educational system where I was required to articulate original ideas instead of simply memorizing facts to regurgitate on a multiple-choice exam honed both my critical thinking and my writing skills, both of which are essential for history majors to master.
3) Finally, history majors should study abroad because it involves living in a new and foreign culture.  It requires being willing to put aside one’s own culture to learn how to efficiently function in another.  It requires being aware of cultural differences and learning how to either work through or live with them.  It requires a desire to understand the mindset of the people among whom one is living.  In short, as Messiah College history major Cassy Baddorf pointed out in a recent blog post, studying abroad is a practice in empathy, both for culture and for other people.  In the words of novelist L.P. Hartley and historian David Lowenthal: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”; if one learns this discipline in real life, it will become easier to put these principles into practice when studying history.  According to Sam Wineburg, when we practice this kind of empathy, we become better historians: “For the narcissist sees the world – both the past and the present – in his own image.  Mature historical knowing 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 (‘lead outward’ in the Latin) in the deepest sense.”
Go and study abroad – it will be a transformative experience!
Kathryn Kaslow is a junior history major with a concentration in public history.  She is a research assistant, student diplomat for the History Department, History Club officer, and a contributor to History on the Bridge.

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.

Sam Wineburg on Teaching "Gray Areas" in an Internet Culture

Over at History News Network, Sam Wineburg offers one way to teach who turn to the Internet for answers how to think more deeply about the complexity of the past.  Here is a taste:

How, then, do we close the gap between old world teaching and the twenty-first-century world that students are linked to by their smartphones? Don’t hold your breath for a change in the textbook industry. Curriculum materials will all become digital — the same drivel packaged with multi-colored illustrations and interactive maps. What then? We can wait for Godot or … we can get to work.
My colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group have chosen the latter path. Over the past three years, we’ve uploaded to the Internet scores of lesson plans for teaching American and World history, each organized around questions that stick their finger in the eye of a single right answer. We’ve come up with assessments that privilege thinking over memorizing. Our curriculum celebrates the ambiguity of the social world and teaches students to cope with it. Each lesson comes with original documents so that students can hear the cacophony of voices belonging to people who made history. These sources often feature diametrically opposed perspectives, shedding light on history from multiple angles. They are supplemented by classroom-ready materials that scaffold students’ small-group discussions. Here are just a few examples:
  • Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?
  • Was the Dust Bowl crisis Mother Nature’s fault or the consequence of human greed?
  • Was the Cuban Missile Crisis defused because, as Dean Rusk boasted, “the other fellow just blinked” or because of a backroom deal between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his diplomatic partner, Soviet ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin?

Such questions force students to contend with shades of gray, to weigh competing evidence, and to consider an author’s trustworthiness. They make students exercise the duties of citizenship.
We are guided by the belief that knowledge should not be a commodity bartered for profit, but available for no cost to anyone who seeks to learn and grow. All of our materials are free. Our work is supported by private contributions and foundations. To date, our materials have been downloaded over a million times.
Have we changed the world — or even our little corner of it? Hardly. But we take solace in the hope that, after encountering our materials, students will no longer defend their conclusions about history with the sham justification, “I found it on the Internet.”

Sam Wineburg on "Contributing to the Field"

Sam Wineburg made his bones in the field of education by writing seminal articles and books on historical thinking. His most famous book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, has received a lot of attention here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in my forthcoming (Sept. 15th) Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. 

Lately, however, Wineburg has been publishing in venues that may not impress his superiors at Stanford University.  Rather than sharing his research with a small group of education professors who read peer-reviewed scholarly journals, he has chosen to write for teachers, publish short pieces in magazines, newspapers, and websites, design lesson plans for classroom use, and create YouTube videos.

He and his team are reaching more people than ever.

With this in mind, Wineburg wonders what he should write on his 2012-2013 annual report. (This is a report in which professors summarize the work they have done over the course of any given academic year).  Do lesson plans, document readers, digital products for high school teachers, and instructional videos “count” for scholarship at Stanford?

Here is a taste of Wineburg’s reflection:

Don’t get me wrong. I have not given up on verified knowledge, scientific replication, peer review, and rigorous statistical tests. I still publish in specialized journals and help my graduate students do so. I serve on two editorial boards, attend academic conferences, and dutifully fill out the ballot for the officers of my professional association. What’s changed is that I’ve stopped lying to myself.

I no longer believe that the scholarly enterprise of education has much to do with educational betterment. I no longer believe that when I publish articles in journals with minuscule circulations I am contributing to the field—if by “field” we mean the thousands of well-meaning individuals who go to work each day in places called schools.

He concludes:

I am not suggesting that every academic follow my accidental journey and take to the Web with digital wares. What I am suggesting is that it’s time for those of us in the academy to stop confusing the field of education with a set of limited-circulation journals. We can no longer afford to tell ourselves that our work is done once we’ve corrected our galleys and submitted our final reports. We have important things to say but have forgotten how—and to whom—to say them.

So go finish that revise-and-resubmit. But let’s not fool ourselves. Confusing impact factor with real-world impact may enhance our annual reviews, but—in the long term—may lead to our own extinction. 

Preach it, Sam!

Reckless Historian: "I am a Historian, Not a Jeopardy Contestant"

It is fun watching Phil Strunk and the Messiah College sophomore history majors who make up the”Reckless Historians” grow as historical thinkers.  In his latest post, Strunk talks about reading Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Natural Acts and coming to grips with the idea that history is more than the memorization of facts.  Here is a taste:

As a historian, I’m just trying to make sense of the past with the facts I’m given.  I get to study the finer details of the past — and while knowing dates and people are necessary tools of history, they should not be the final product of history.  History is deeply involved in understanding our thought processes and the thought processes of people in the past, and just trying to understand the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of a situation.

Phil’s post reminds me of a line in my forthcoming, Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  After discussing the economics teacher (played by Ben Stein) in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I write: “This teacher, with his knowledge of certain facts about economic life in America, might be a successful candidate on Jeopardy, but he is not teaching history.”

Sam Wineburg on How to Read Like a Historian

Sam Wineburg‘s work on historical reading has made it to the cover of the May/June issue of Stanford Magazine.  Here is a taste:

Designed by the Stanford History Education Group under Professor Sam Wineburg, the website offers 87 flexible lesson plans featuring documents from the Library of Congress. Teachers can download the lessons and adapt them for their own purposes, free of charge. Students learn how to examine documents critically, just as historians would, in order to answer intriguing questions: Did Pocahontas really rescue John Smith? Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Who blinked first in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russians or the Americans?

Apparently the program has struck a chord. In school districts from red states and blue, New York City and Chicago to Carmel, Calif., history teachers are lining up for workshops on how to use the materials. The website’s lessons have been downloaded 800,000 times and spawned a lively online community of history educators grateful for the camaraderie—and often desperate for help. 

Many would agree that they need it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 30 percent of the people who teach history-related courses in U.S. public high schools both majored in the field and are certified to teach it. Fewer than one quarter of the country’s students in grades four, eight and 12 are considered proficient in American history. Only 32 percent of eighth graders who took the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress could name an advantage American forces had over the British in the Revolutionary War. Just 22 percent of high school seniors knew that U.S. troops were up against Chinese forces in the Korean War.

Read the rest here. With the adoption of Core Standards in each state, using the past to teach reading may be the best hope for keeping history in the curriculum.

Ideology and Teaching

Should teachers and professors wear their political and other ideological convictions on their sleeves when they teach?  Andrew Hartman, writing at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, thinks that they should.  He describes the three most influential teachers in his life–an Ayn Rand objectivist, a “Debs-style socialist,” and a defender of ideological diversity who nevertheless made offensive political comments in class.

Hartman concludes:

I teach students who want to be teachers. They often come to my classroom convinced they need to go to extreme lengths to avoid revealing their political selves to their future students. They are conditioned to be neutral by a college of education that inculcates professionalism and that seems to believe political ideology is anti-professional. In an educational culture that values testing and so-called accountability above all else, this might be the right pedagogical approach. But it is exactly wrong if we want students to be inspired learners.

I am not so sure. While I have little patience for what Hartman calls an “educational culture that values testing,” I do think it is  possible to pursue some form of ideological neutrality in the classroom and still produce “inspired learners.”

For example, will my personal disdain for 17th-century slaveholders help students to better understand the world of the slaveholders and why they behaved in the way that they did?  I don’t think so.  I do think that there can be a place for ideology in the history classroom, but it must come after a teacher has made an effort to bracket his or her convictions for the sake of helping students understand the historical events under consideration.

I just finished teaching Edmund Morgan’s magisterial American Slavery-American Freedom.  It is impossible to read that book closely without having one’s moral imagination triggered by the paradox between liberty and bondage in 17th-century Virginia.  As we read the book together, my students wanted to talk about what they perceived to be the immoral behavior of tobacco growers and the greed that drove them to turn toward slavery in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion. Was the behavior of these slaveholders immoral by the standards of their Christian faith?  Yes.  Were the settlers of Virginia driven by greed?  Yes.  Both of these points should be acknowledged, but to argue that the behavior of the slaveholders was “good” or “bad” in the context of some larger ideology like Marxism, free-market economics, or libertarianism seems out of place in a history course.

Some of my students were a bit surprised when I would not let them engage in moral pontificating until they fully understood Morgan’s argument and had a thorough grasp of the social and economic conditions that led Virginia to become a slave society by the end of the century.   Only after I concluded that they had a good grasp on this history did I decide to open the floor to a conversation about how we, as twenty-first century Americans, should feel about this great paradox at the heart of early Virginia life and how that paradox might influence our understanding of race and class in the United States today.  The students were equally inspired by this conversation, but it was a conversation that came rather easy for them.  But the practice of empathizing with all the characters they encountered in this society–freemen, slaves, tobacco growers–  was not so easy.  Indeed, as Sam Wineburg notes, such an empathetic approach to the past is an “unnatural act.” 

It is natural for us to turn our lecterns into pulpits or stumps, but I am not sure how much historical learning actually takes place when we do it.