REMARKS AT PIONEER INSTITUTE EVENT, FEATURING PROF. E.D. HIRSCH, MARCH 31, 2010
I’d like to first thank the Pioneer Institute for inviting me to participate on this panel. It’s highly unusual for a teacher (or, in my case, a former teacher) to actually be invited to discuss education policy in such a forum. So Pioneer, if you have a Facebook page, I just might have to become a fan!
Dr. Hirsch, thank you for that erudite and provocative talk. I’m sure that all of my students would have learned a great deal from the content of your presentation. I know I did. I would also hope that, as they listened to it, they would be silently evaluating the logic of your argument, considering the historical evidence you used, and wondering whether other historians interpreted the past in the same bifurcated way. Teachers must always have the time to model and encourage such habits of mind. After all, higher-order thinking skills began long before the 21st Century.
Speaking personally, my 35-years in the classroom didn’t demonstrate that teaching critical thinking skills impeded the teaching of content. They were always intertwined. I taught skills in the context of content, so students would understand that history isn’t about uncontested memory, but rather about fiercely debated arguments, often with an urgent contemporary relevance. In fact, I’d like to make a public confession here-I should have to wear a sign around my neck attesting to this-I taught too much content. After all, besides being an unending argument, history is also a great story. That’s what drew my students in. They hungered for content to chew on and to share with their families as fully empowered citizens of the dinner-table.
My Lincoln-Sudbury colleagues shared my sense of the importance of teaching critical thinking skills. No doubt this is one of the factors that made our program so popular, and this largely because we took students beyond memorization. At L-S, the overwhelming number of students choose to take 4 years of history, though our school requirement only calls for three.
Nor did our attention to skill-building discourage civic engagement. To the contrary! In a school whose official motto is, “Think for Yourself, but Think of Others,” L-S students are deeply involved in activities that reflect enduring American values. Through our Martin Luther King Action Project, hundreds of our students every year volunteer in area food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens. During vacations, they journey to New Orleans and West Philadelphia to work with Habit for Humanity. In a few weeks, I’ll be traveling to genocide-torn Battambang province in Cambodia with an LS student and an LS alum. There we’ll help dedicate a school that the Lincoln-Sudbury community built for the youth of Cambodia.
Still, I very much share Dr. Hirsch’s sense of the importance of history instruction. It’s for this reason I’d be happy if our state government legislated an ambitious requirement. But, beyond the Declaration and Constitution, I wouldn’t want to see the state tell teachers all they must cover and teach. If liberals and conservatives can agree on anything, it should be that the past does not belong to the state. Besides, I’ve been down that road before as a New York City public school student. The NY State Regents felt it was crucial for us to remember the Hay-Paunciforte Treaty, but not very important at all for us to learn about the life of a plantation slave or the experience of an interned Japanese-American. My sense of civic engagement was most definitely not enhanced by this view. Let’s remember, history prescribed is almost always history proscribed.
In fact, I have had a chance to examine this classic: “The Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum Framework.” I learned to my amusement that my personal hero, Henry David Thoreau, is consigned to the 3rd grade where eager students, incapable of reading any of his writings, will learn that once upon a time there was a man who lived in a little teensy-weensy cabin. And this in Massachusetts! [I was later corrected: Thoreau, it turns out, is mentioned in the American History I strand, and I do think “mentioned” is probably the right word]. I also learned without amusement that the 1960s section of the Framework seems to suggest that the Student Anti-War Movement and the Counter-Culture never occurred, despite the millions of citizens who participated in these dramatic expressions of civic engagement. These topics were simply excised Soviet-style. I couldn’t help but note that several allegedly memorable speeches by Ronald Reagan were mandated.
So, yes, let’s celebrate content. But let’s not celebrate it to death by chaining teachers to frameworks that are excessively detailed, arbitrary, and/or biased. The State of Texas serves as a bight red warning light in this respect. Above all, let’s not win the Pyrrhic victory that’ll surely be ours if we ask students only to memorize and, for lack of time, not to think, discuss, analyze, or make connections to current events. Most of our kids, after all, will not become history majors. They won’t retain all that we try to shoehorn in. Let’s think less about MCAS and more about how we might encourage them to become life-long students of history, whatever their college majors or vocations. We need citizens who are both civically-engaged and thoughtful, who can draw on historical perspective and also bring higher order thinking skills to bear when, for example, media outlets tell them that President Obama wants pull the plug on their grandma.
As teachers, our primary challenge is to engage students by making history interesting to them. Since you all look like post-12th graders here, let me end with these grade-appropriate words of Henry David Thoreau. He wrote them in his journal on February 23, 1860: “A fact stated barely is dry. It must be the vehicle of some humanity in order to be of interest to us. It is like giving a man a stone when he asks you for bread.”
Ladies and gentlemen, cultural and historical literacy have to mean more than a list.