Friday, July 9, 2010

What History do Kids Need to Know?

One of the divides between progressives and traditionalists is the idea of a core curriculum, or a set of stuff that kids need to know and should be taught in school. I find myself increasingly on the side of the traditionalists on this one. Yes, there's a body of knowledge that adults have (we hope), and we need to pass this on to the next generation. For instance, I don't want my kids getting out of high school not knowing what World War II was, or the French Revolution, or (fill in the blank.)

I read somewhere that the problem began when "Social Studies" replaced "History". I don't know if that's true, but one of the few things I remember from my own schooling was 6th grade Social Studies. We spent the first half of the year studying Whaling, and the second half of the year studying India. In spite of our efforts, when the movie "Gandhi" came out some years later, I had no idea who Gandhi was.

The other day I was talking to my new neighbor. His daughter was playing with a little boy and I asked the little boy's name. He said, "Alexei". I said, "Oh, like the tsarevich?" My neighbor gave me the old dead-halibut look. Digging myself deeper, I said, "you know, the last of the Romanovs? Russian tsars? Shot in the basement?" He had no idea what I was talking about. My neighbor is actually a doctor, so he has spent many years in school.

So I agree with the traditionalists that there is a body of knowledge that educated people should have.

On the other hand, I find myself allied with the progressives when I hear traditionalists talk about their ideas of core knowledge. Often, it comes down to little factoids which are easy to isolate, memorize, and test. More than once, I've seen people get indignant that kids "don't memorize state capitals anymore." Huh? I never memorized the state capitals, and it's a lack I have never regretted. In this day and age, if I need to know the capital of a state, I can get it from Google. And if we had memorized the state capitals in school (actually, it's possible we did, and I daydreamed through the whole thing) it would have been nothing but a turn-off for me.

So, faithful readers, what history do kids need to know?

16 comments:

  1. Tricky question. I agree that state capitals seems dull, but I can also google the Romanov's and India.
    In my 4th year of my undergrad, I took a special topics course but I can't recall what the prof called it. He wanted to teach the concept that all fields of endeavor have common themes and methods of analysis, and when you learn this principle it can guide you through any new field you care to pursue. It was the essence of a course on how to learn. We took 10 introductory text books from 10 different "-ologies" and tried to discover how the science or field of study was organized. It was a very interesting process. But I was 24, not an elementary student.

    I think kids need to be aware of the world around them currently. It's the most relevant. They should learn about local and national government and how it came to be that way. But after that, for me, it all becomes a jumble. How do you separate history from geography and archeology and biology...to me they are wonderfully intertwined. I became interested in historical novels when I was in my 20's, in PBS historical drama (I, Claudius comes to mind) and those things grew my knowledge because I started buying and reading history books.

    Again, I don't think appreciation for history is something that the average youngster can be expected to have. But they should learn the importance of civics...and being a part of the world. And they should learn how to learn about these things.

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  2. It's funny, when we were trying to decide (several years ago) whether to send our kids to private or public school, the history curriculum at the various schools we visited was an important factor to us. The public school curriculum seemed to have abolished history as its own subject, along with geography; both were subsumed by the amorphous "social studies." But to my surprise the vast majority of the private schools had done the same thing. There was one "core knowledge" school that I considered for my daughters, but you're right, FedUpMom, the core knowledge curriculum seems to go hand in hand with a very traditionalist pedagogy. There's no reason this has to be the case, but it was the case at this particular school. Then there were the IB schools, which mix together all the traditional subject areas in the name of "interdisciplinarity," which I'm not sure is very useful or intelligible for younger kids. The only other school that seemed to take history somewhat seriously was Waldorf, a route we did not choose for complicated reasons. So my kids ended up in the public system, where they are learning nothing but Canadian history until high school, at which point there are two excellent (but optional) world history courses offered.

    It always shocks me that people I meet in their twenties, some of whom have graduated from the most expensive and elite private schools in the country, have no idea what the Reformation was, and how it affected and continues to affect Western culture. If they know anything about geography it is from traveling and not from school, where again, it's Canadian geography ad nauseam, right through high school.

    I actually have a post in my drafts file on my own blog called "Don't know much about geography..." (the musical reference dates me of course).

    So, I'm with you FedUpMom, I believe there are certain historical facts/trends/movements, etc., that kids should be taught about in school. The problem with the argument that they can always Google it, is that if they don't know it exists (eg, the Reformation), they're not going to Google it. So they're never going to find out about it.

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  3. Yes, I don't know why "progressive" should mean "no particular content", but in practice, that's how it seems to work out. Likewise, I don't know why caring about content should mean kids have to memorize factoids.

    The difference between the Romanovs and state capitals, for me, is that the Romanovs are a fascinating subject that can reward a lifetime of study, while the state capitals are just *meh*. Knowing the state capitals isn't interesting or useful, and it sheds no light on any other field of study. What's the point?

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  4. While you can google both the Romanvos and state capitals, I think there's a fundamental difference between the two bodies of knowledge. The downfall of the Romanovs (which for the record I had to google, since my one year of world history didn't get past about the 1850s because we ran out of time) is a historical event, and so a history class could discuss what caused it, what events lead up to it, what its lasting effects have been on Russia and the rest of the world. Those are questions I don't think we focused much on in my history/social studies classes, which in retrospect seemed primarily aimed at teaching us how awesome the U.S. is.

    State capitals on the other hand are simple facts to be memorized. There may be value in discussing why a particular city is the capital of a state, what events happened there that warranted it becoming the capital and how does that city now contribute to the state's economy, politics and tourism. But that's not the same thing as sitting down and memorizing a bunch of factual info with no context, which I spend a good part of the year doing in my fourth grade social studies class.

    In American history, I think events included in the standard curriculums now, which take students in chronological order through wars and major political and economical events and the impacts of these events on lifestyles, are probably good. (I should note here that I am far from a history buff, as you've probably gathered.) But I'd add more focus on how political climates and events in other countries affected us, especially in the past 20-30 years. And instead students memorizing facts for multiple choice tests, there should be more focus on how these events shaped the country we live in today. Do Americans have largely different principles and ideals today than they did in the past?

    Also, U.S. schools need to lose some of the intense emphasis on American history. When I was in school in Virginia Beach in the 90's, American history was covered in some fashion in third, fourth, fifth, seventh and 11th grades. (We may have had it in 1rst and 2nd grades too, but I don't remember.) We learned the same things over and over again and never got past Vietnam at the absolute latest, because we ran out of time. I took exactly one year of a class called world history, in 9th grade, and that was optional! Ancient civilizations was 6th grade, civics was 8th grade, and government (somewhat of a repeat of civics but more detailed) was 12th grade. I was also required to take a semester of American history in college (which, thanks to an excellent teacher, I remember more from that than I do from all those other years.) Consequently, I know very little about world history or modern-day political climates in other countries, and I feel like that was one of the biggest failures of my education.

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  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments! There's so much here that I'll respond in a new post.

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  6. One of the problems is that there's a virtually infinite amount of history, and it's hard to single out any one part of it as less meaningful or important than another part. You can't possibly cover it all, so what gets dropped -- Ancient Greece and Rome? The Renaissance? The French Revolution? The Industrial Revolution? The Cold War? Civilizations other than Western civilization? And so on.

    I tend to be skeptical of the impulse to solve a social problem (or at least a perceived one) by imposing requirements on kids in school. I think everybody overestimates the efficacy of "making kids learn" something by adding it to the required curriculum. I took French from 5th grade through 12th grade -- because it was required -- but I was never genuinely interested in it, and now I'm lucky if I can order off a menu at a French restaurant.

    My inclination would be to let each kid choose what part of history he or she would like to learn something about. They'd probably all choose different things, but at least they might retain more of it, and if they enjoy it maybe they'd be more likely to learn about other historical periods later on. I guess that would be considered too unworkable (not to mention too granola-crunchy) in a conventional school. The freedom to try something like that is one of the things I envy about homeschoolers.

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  7. Look, when I researched important history that kids should know, this website came up. I read it but it was just talking about kids should do this and do that and all that stuff. But, this website will not even give me a clue to what history topic kids should know about. You either fix up this website or I won't visit it anymore.
    From: A student in elementary school.

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    1. It has been 2 years since a comment has been posted. Whoever is responsible for this business will fix it up or else... I agree with this elementary student. Whoever he or she is, they are right.

      From:Barack Obama

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  8. Suburban Chicken FarmerMarch 27, 2012 at 1:30 PM

    Dear Student, a good place to start would be your teacher. Next would be your state's educational standards website. It will depend on your grade which history is a standard.
    For instance, here in California, a fourth grade standard in history is for all fourth graders to learn the history of The Spanish Mission system.

    Personally, I think by the end of sixth grade, you should know how and when the United States was established, What and when the industrial revolution was. Native American history. Immigrant migrations to the U.S., The Magna Carta, Mesopotamian civilization, Egyptian civilizations, Greek and Roman civilizations. The effect of double cropping.

    Best wishes, SCF

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    1. Well suburban chicken farmer, I am in 4th grade. Can you please list some history that kids should know about? Maybe some websites? PLEASE!!!! I need to impress my whole school when I present this topic. It's due on March 29th,2012. PLEASE reply to me today or tomorrow. Please!
      Thanks,
      Elementary student.

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    2. Well suburban chicken farmer, I am in 4th grade. Can you please list some history that kids should know about? Maybe some websites? PLEASE!!!! I need to impress my whole school when I present this topic. It's due on March 29th,2012. PLEASE reply to me today or tomorrow. Please!
      Thanks,
      Elementary student.

      Delete
  9. Suburban Chicken FarmerMarch 27, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    Okay. Here's an interesting yet easy one to write about- "The Apotheosis Of Washington" It's this fresco (a style of art) depicting our first president being transformed into a Roman god. Pretty wild, right? Maybe we'll transform ol' Barack Obama in a painting someday!
    right click over it and it will open a link.
    http://kids.clerk.house.gov/grade-school/lesson.html?intID=40

    Here's a great resource link, the wikipedia page about The Apotheosis of Washington.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Apotheosis_of_Washington

    At the bottom of the page, look for external links which will have even more detailed information.
    Best Wishes, SCF

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    1. Okay, THANKS!!!!! Would the eruption of Mount Vesuvius be interesting? Oh and thanks for the links!!! By the way, how old are you and are you really a farmer? Maybe we could chat about stuff sometime here. WOULD THAT BE OKAY WITH YOU? BYE!!!! Reply back to me please.
      THANKS,
      ELEMENTARY STUDENT!!!!!

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  10. Suburban Chicken FarmerMarch 27, 2012 at 2:34 PM

    It's interesting to me. I didn't learn about ancient Roman or Pompeii til I was in fifth grade. I liked it a lot. Here's a good site for ya:
    http://mr_sedivy.tripod.com/pompeii.html
    I'm 49. I have a lot of chickens, and of course eggs, fruit trees, and a weed, I mean vegetable garden- in the city. We don't grow any where enough to "live off the land," so I guess I'm not a real farmer. We sure do like what we do grow though.
    First, this isn't my blog.
    Second, this blog usually sticks to the subject of schools, teaching methods, and a lot of problems people can face when they disagree with school districts. If those are subjects you're interested in voicing your thoughts about, I'm sure you'd be welcome to do so anytime.
    Best Wishes, SCF

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    1. Well Hi again SCF!!!! Sorry I could not reply to you sooner. I had to go to piano lessons then to diving lessons. If there is anything you want to know about me, just ask!!!!

      From: Elementary student!!!!!
      THANKS AGAIN

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