School ? History? Who cares?
In my last post, I mentioned that there are some very low scores on my "Required Knowledge" Test when kids enter my class as sophomores. When I wrote that, I expected somebody to ask the question that was eventually asked by Crypticlife: "If your students (sophomores) do poorly on this test coming in, why do you feel the schools are doing a good job preparing students?" That is a fair question, but in order to answer it, I've got to ask it the other way. If schools are doing a good job, why do kids do so poorly on a test like this?
Part of the answer for the last couple of years probably does lie in the fact that my school isn't doing as good a job preparing students as we used to because of teacher cuts. As the cuts have been made, too many teachers in our district have been bumped around and moved into areas that they've never taught before, and no discipline has suffered more from that in our school than social studies.
However, I'm not going to be too hard on those teachers who work with kids at younger ages, because, despite my efforts, I don't know that my former students do much better. I've heard too many stories about my own former students coming up blank when asked, a year or two after I've had them, something like when the Revolutionary War took place. And I really hate to admit this, but I'm talking about kids who got A's in my class. If you want to believe I must have done a lousy job, too, go ahead, but I could show you some of the work they did, the tests they took, the essays and opinions they wrote, and you would wonder, like I do, how kids could know something so well one year and seemingly completely forget it the next. I really believe that the major problem for our kids lack of historical knowledge is that too many of them just don't care. Some of them don't care about school at all, and most of them don't care about history.
For many students, I would say those who get C's and worse, school is very low on their list of priorities. They are more concerned about their friends and their social lives, their part time jobs, their family problems, their sports and other activities. School falls behind all of those and other things in importance. They might do work they are assigned if they have the time, but it isn't because they care about what they are supposed to learn; it's something they have to get out of the way. And if they don't have time, that's just the way it goes. After all, there are more important things. I mean did you hear what Bobby said about Lisa?
As adults we know how important education is to young people. We know that when they enter high school, most kids have an almost unlimited number of doorways to opportunities open to them. If they work hard and try to actually learn, the doorways stay open, and some of those doorways can lead to a very nice life. On the other hand, if kids waste their time in school, those doors begin to slam shut, and only those leading to the least attractive avenues remain open. We can tell kids that, and they might understand that at an intellectual level, but many of them never really feel it. For many kids today, in order for something to matter to them, the awards have to be almost immediate. The rewards and the punishments being promised in their education aren't immediate enough, so they end up pursuing the things that will lead them to mediocrity or worse.
This is true for alot of kids for all subjects, but I think it would be fair to say that it is most true in history. They simply cannot see any practical value that learning history will have in their lives. This is even true for kids who care about their GPAs. They understand that they need good grades in history classes, but only a few of them believe that learning the subject will ever have any real meaning in their lives. The subject matter is something to be learned for the test--period!
I know and believe all the arguments about the importance of understanding history: it's necessary to understand and appreciate the rights and freedoms that we have; it's necessary to be an effective citizen in our democracy; those who fail to understand the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them; it's important for cultural literacy; and finally, it's really quite interesting. But I can preach those things to my kids until the cows come home; most of them just aren't buying. If I can't show them how knowing the difference between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars will have an effect on their lives today, tomorrow, or maybe the next day, they aren't going to view that as something that "really matters."
I know that I am not the only history teacher who has trouble getting kids to believe that what I am trying to teach them is important. In fact, I've got plenty of company. I'm not sure why things are this way in America, but I believe that it has a lot to do with our culture. Immediate gratification has become pervasive in our society, and you can see it in our widespread drug use, our teenage pregnancy rate, the number of Americans who are obese, and in all the I-pods and cell phones that enable people to listen to their music NOW, and make and receive phone calls NOW. Education in general and learning history in particular are not immediate gratification propositions. They require a lot of work, and the rewards are going to come very gradually or well into the future. It is a rare teenager who is willing to buy into that.
I'm sure that there are people who will read this and conclude that this is just a cop-out, and the problem is entirely within the schools. They will say that regardless of parenting, regardless of the influences of our culture, it is the schools' job to get kids to learn. I can only say to them that this problem frustrates me as much as it frustrates anyone I know, and I've tried everything I can think of to get kids to learn and retain American history. If someone thinks they've got the solution, I'll be happy to listen.