by Edd Doerr
"US History Is Still Troublesome for US Students, Nationwide Tests Show", shouts a headline in the New York Times on June 15 above a 6-column story on the latest results of National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. As a former high school history teacher I would like to record some observations, in no particular order of importance.
Several years ago a nephew, a graduate of my own university and a millionaire, rang me up to ask what World War II was all about. In reply to my stunned question, he informed me that his history teachers in his private high school and public university had never gone past the year 1900. So I spent an hour or so explaining the 20th century. Which brings us to the problem.
History is the most controversial subject in the curriculum. Teachers and schools too often shun controversy. Textbooks are produced by publishers trying to make a profit, and getting textbooks adopted is crucial to the process. James W. Loewen's 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong explains this rather well. Then, too, pressure groups, usually from the Far Right, like Texas' Mel and Norma Gabler or David Barton, make life miserable for teachers, administrators and publishers.
Some years ago a teacher friend of mine spent a week with his history students on the Bill of Rights in his rural school district. The school principal reamed him out for daring to deal with something so controversial. The teacher then told the principal that he was going to drive to the state capital and have the ACLU "sue his ass". The teacher years later became the state ACLU executive director. In my first year of teaching in the US, during the civil rights era, I got into trouble in my lily white school district for daring to have the subject discussed in class.
Then there is the problem that seldom gets talked about, the predominance of coaches as high school history teachers. Why? you might ask. Because many, perhaps most, states require that athletic coaches teach and be licensed in an academic subject, and the easiest subject in which to get certified is social studies. So zillions of kids are being taught history by guys whose first interest is winning football or basketball games but who know and care all too little about history.