Will Fitzhugh is founder and editor of The Concord Review, which publishes outstanding historical essays by high school students. I have long been an admirer of the publication and of Will for sustaining it without support from any major foundations, which are too engaged in reinventing the schools rather than supporting the work of excellent history students and teachers. You can subscribe by contacting him at email@example.com.
A few years ago, at a conference in Boston, David Steiner, then Commissioner of Education for New York State, said, about History: “It is so politically toxic that no one wants to touch it.”
Since then, David Coleman, of the Common Core and the College Board, have decided that any historical topic, for instance the Gettysburg Address, should be taught in the absence of any historical context—about the Civil War, President Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg—or anything else. This fits well with the “Close Reading” teachings of the “New Criticism” approach to literature in which Coleman received his academic training. This doctrine insists that any knowledge about the author or the historical context should be avoided in the analytic study of “texts.”
The Common Core, thanks to Coleman, has promoted the message that History, too, is nothing but a collection of “texts,” and it all should be studied as just language, not as knowledge dependent on the context in which it is embedded.
Not only does this promote ignorance, it also encourages schools to form Humanities Departments, in which English teachers, who may or may not know any History, are assigned to teach History as “text.” This is already happening in a few Massachusetts high schools, and may be found elsewhere in the country.
The dominance of English teachers over reading and writing in our schools has long meant that the great majority of our high school graduates have never been asked to read one complete History book in their academic careers.
Good English teachers do a fine job of teaching novels and personal and creative writing, but it is a Common Core mistake to expect them to teach the History in which they have little or no academic background. Treating History as contextless “text” is not a solution to this problem.
The ignorance of History among our high school graduates is a standing joke to those who think it is funny, and NAEP has found that only about 18% know enough to pass the U.S. citizenship exam.
In The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch writes that: “In a 1785 letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, aged fifteen, Jefferson recommended that he read books (in the original languages and in this order) by the following authors in History: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon [Anabasis], Arian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, and Justin.”
We may no longer imagine that many of our high school students will read their History in Latin, but we should expect that somehow they may be liberated from the deeply irresponsible Common Core curriculum that, in restricting the study of the past to the literary analysis of “texts,” essentially removes as much actual History from our schools as it possibly can.
Via Will Fitzhugh.