Commentary | Education

Lessons—Going Beyond Mere Facts in the Study of History

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Going Beyond Mere Facts in the Study of History

By Richard Rothstein

Students are woefully ignorant of history. A 1999 survey asked college seniors questions like who led our troops at Yorktown; the most common answer was Ulysses S. Grant. In 1986, the government tested 17-year-olds in history; most said the Civil War occurred before 1850.

Lynne Cheney, former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose husband is now vice president, cites such scandals in her campaign to increase the study of history, which she calls the glue that unites Americans. Mrs. Cheney has said that “allowing the erosion of historical consciousness” is like inviting a foreign enemy to destroy us.

Mrs. Cheney does not argue that students should know only dates and names, but she maintains that knowledge begins there. Yet in eras when facts were routinely memorized, students quickly forgot them. A 1917 study found that students could recall fewer than half the history facts teachers said they should know. A 1944 report was similar.

A proper study of history may indeed promote patriotism, but if civic unity really depended on a “facts first” approach, this nation would not have survived.

History is hard to teach because students will not remember facts without a context, but they cannot comprehend the context without knowing the facts. As Mrs. Cheney suggests, if we all learn common facts, we can have a common conversation. But most of us learn facts only in the process of answering questions we find important. So good instruction draws students into historical controversies that they cannot solve without mastering the details of actors and events.

Sam Wineburg, a professor at the University of Washington, explores this conundrum in “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” (Temple University Press, 2001), which was called the year’s best book by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Dr. Wineburg says the study of history should lead to empathy with historical figures, much as the study of literature explores human dilemmas by weighing the practical pressures that characters experience as well as absolute ethical values.

Dr. Wineburg shows how students can join debates of adult historians about whether Abraham Lincoln had views that would now be considered racist. On some occasions as a candidate and president, Lincoln suggested that slaves, even when freed, should not have full civil rights.

Dr. Wineburg urges the use of original sources – letters and speeches – to help students imagine a world whose moral framework was different from today’s. Such inquiry, which can engage students, raises problems that even philosophers cannot solve. If we avoid judging Lincoln by modern standards, whose 19th-century standards should we apply? Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and slaves themselves, had values more like our own. If they did not question slaves’ humanity, should we excuse Lincoln for grappling with it? Did Lincoln, a politician worried about electability, hide his own views?

Students who study these questions can easily recall Civil War dates. But intensive inquiry into a single period takes time. In a school year, students cannot examine in detail every event that survey courses now cover, so they will still do poorly on tests of random facts learned out of context. Even professional historians, Dr. Wineburg notes, forget dates and names from outside their specialties and would fail tests we give to 17-year-olds.

Mrs. Cheney does not want facts taught for their own sake but says knowledge of history can make young people “appreciate how greatly fortunate we are to live in freedom.” Yet this goal too often invites distorted instruction. Appreciation will not come from learning a one- sided pageant in which patriots set examples to emulate.

Dr. Wineburg notes that students who seek truth from a range of documents will not only learn that Lincoln’s views were complex. Studying the Revolution, students may also come to wonder if John Hancock helped organize the Boston Tea Party to protest lack of representation or because British taxes threatened his tea business. They may learn that redcoats might not have fired the first shot at Lexington. They may grapple with how Canada, now also a free nation, descended from loyalists, not rebels against King George.

We should improve history teaching, but this could be tougher than improving reading or math. Study of history presents students with moral dilemmas, alternative perspectives and theories of cause and effect that even adults cannot resolve.

Better lessons may not yield much higher scores on tests of historical recall. But students will be better able to weigh evidence, consider consequences of their actions and understand others’ motivations. If these are the qualities of citizenship, history lessons that strike a better balance between facts and big ideas are a prerequisite.

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