History: Our Worst-Taught Subject

THE recommendations in the recently released ''National Standards for Teaching United States History,'' freshly condemned on the floor of the US Senate, merely scratch the surface. History is our worst-taught subject. Indeed, it is the only field in which the more courses high school students take, the stupider they become.

After spending two years at the Smithsonian Institution reading high school American history textbooks, I think I know how, and why -- and even what to do about it.

The problem originates with history textbooks and begins at the beginning, with their titles: ''The Great Republic,'' ''The American Way,'' ''Land of Promise,'' ''Rise of the American Nation.'' Such titles differ from the titles of all other textbooks students read in high school or college. Chemistry books, for instance, are called ''Chemistry'' or ''Principles of Chemistry,'' not ''Rise of the Molecule.''

Inside, the history texts are full of information -- overly full. No publisher wants to lose out because their book left out a detail of concern to some area or group. Then there are the review pages at the end of chapters. ''Land of Promise,'' to take one example, enumerates 444 ''main ideas'' and 624 ''key terms,'' along with literally thousands of ''skill activities,'' ''matching'' items, ''fill in the blanks,'' ''thinking critically'' questions, and ''review identifications.''

At year's end, no student can remember 444 main ideas and 624 key terms, so students and teachers fall back on one main idea: to memorize the terms for the test following each chapter, then clear the synapses for the next chapter. No wonder high school graduates are notorious for forgetting the century in which the Civil War was fought!

It's a good thing, too, because many of the ''factoids'' are simply wrong. For example, ''The American Pageant'' still claims that people before Columbus thought the world was flat. Columbus's ''superstitious sailors, fearful of sailing over the edge of the world, grew increasingly mutinous.''

In reality, few people thought so on either side of the Atlantic. Most Europeans and Native Americans knew the world to be round. It looks round. It casts a circular shadow on the moon. The Catholic Church said it was round. Sailors see its roundness when ships disappear over the horizon, hull first, then sails.

Washington Irving wins credit for popularizing the flat-earth fable in his best-selling biography of Columbus in 1828 (among his other legends was one about ''Sleepy Hollow''), although Irving himself surely knew the story to be fiction. Perhaps it's not his fault that Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy repeat the myth 163 years later.

Why might two Stanford historians blunder so? Perhaps they didn't know any better. Authors cannot write what they do not know. Keeping up with the secondary literature of history takes work. It is easier simply to imitate earlier textbooks.

Thus the flat-earth myth, like the stories about Isabella pawning her jewels or Columbus dying ignorant that he had reached a continent new to Europe, get passed on for decades by authors who don't know to correct them. Similarly, textbooks tell how Jackie Robinson was ''the first black baseball player ever allowed in the major leagues,'' in the words of ''Life and Liberty,'' even though he wasn't.

Sometimes authors do know better. James Davidson and Mark Lytle, for example, authors of ''The United States -- a History of the Republic,'' also co-wrote a book aimed at college history majors: ''After the Fact.'' There they devote most of a chapter to the My Lai massacre, telling how news of the massacre stunned the US.

Plainly they do not think high school students need to know about it, however, for their high school history book, like most textbooks I studied, never mentions My Lai. That implies that something other than mere ignorance is at work here. The Vietnam War relates in important ways to the present. ''The lessons of Vietnam'' have also been used to inform or mislead discussions about intervention abroad, secrecy, the press, how the federal government operates, and even whether the military should admit gays.

Because the Vietnam War remains relevant to the present, it remains controversial. As a representative from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston put it, ''When you're publishing a book, if there's something that is controversial, it's better to take it out.'' Since they cannot leave out the war, authors instead say nothing of substance about it.

Even topics as distant as slavery and the Civil War have relevance to the present. Ironically, however, the very success of the civil rights movement lets authors discuss slavery negatively without departing from their customary optimistic tone. Because slavery is over, textbooks can cover it accurately. Without relevance to the present, however, extensive coverage of slavery is like extensive coverage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff -- just more facts for hapless 11th graders to memorize.

Slavery's twin legacies to the present are the social and economic inferiority it conferred upon blacks and the cultural racism it impregnated within whites. Both still haunt our society. Viewing African-Americans (and native Americans) as inferior was not just southern and did not just go away in 1863. Therefore treating slavery's enduring legacy would be controversial.

Nevertheless, high school history courses must do it. To function adequately in civic life in our troubled times, students must learn what causes racism. Five in six never take a history course after they graduate from high school.

Therefore high school textbooks must show the dynamic interplay between slavery as a socioeconomic system and racism as an idea system. But they don't. Racism, racial prejudice, or any term beginning with ''race'' never appears in the indexes of most textbooks. Thus they cripple students' ability to think rationally or historically about one of the most emotional issues of our time.

Textbooks have trouble treating honestly any problem that has not already been solved. Progress is their most important motto, which may explain why most authors go on to ignore the nadir of American race relations, 1890-1920.

During this time white Americans, north and south, joined hands to restrict black civil and economic rights. Segregation increased everywhere. Whites forced the last African-American before Robinson out of major league baseball at the beginning of the nadir, in 1889. In 1911 the Kentucky Derby eliminated black jockeys after they won 15 of the first 28 derbies. In the North as well as the South, whites forced African Americans from skilled occupations and even unskilled jobs like postal carriers.

It is hard to imagine today how racist the United States became during and just after the nadir. The Bronx Zoo exhibited an African behind bars, like a gorilla. Minstrel shows featuring bumbling whites in blackface grew wildly popular from New England to California. Mass attacks by whites wiped out or terrorized black communities in the Florida Keys, Springfield, Ill., and the Arkansas Delta, and threatened every black neighborhood in the nation. Lynchings rose to their all-time high and took place as far north as Duluth, Minn.

''The US has done more than any other nation in history to provide equal rights for all,'' students are blandly assured by ''The American Tradition.'' Of course, its authors have not seriously considered human rights in the Netherlands or Lesotho today, or in Choctaw society in 1800. They don't mean their declaration as a serious statement of comparative history; it is just ethnocentric cheerleading. A white high school graduate who takes it seriously, however, might reasonably end up snarling at our next instance of televised black unrest, ''What more do you people want?''

Educators justify teaching history because it gives perspective on the present. Authors then forget to apply history to race relations, surely the most historically imbued of all our current issues.

But there is hope. Across the nation, innovative history teachers are involving their students at all grade levels with primary sources. Instead of trying to force students to memorize the million and one factoids that make history books fat, these teachers introduce fewer topics and examine them more thoroughly. Some teach ''against'' their textbooks, bringing in outside reading to get students grappling with real issues.

When controversies result, like those about the National Standards and the abortive Enola Gay exhibit, they enhance the health of our democracy, something the rote learning of nationalist factoids can never accomplish.

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