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But What is Our Story?

Once while speaking to a high school class, I watched with astonishment as a student removed her sweat pants and used a depilatory to shave her legs. Sensing my bewilderment, the teacher motioned me to ignore the distraction. “You have to choose your battles,” she explained later. This makes me wonder if a teacher from the ivory tower like me has the street cred to advise teachers in the Kingdom of Nair.

I do teach a lot of U.S. history surveys, though. And I’m noticing something that will interest secondary teachers.

In the first week of my course, students write a two-page history of the United States. I don’t allow them to look anything up, which makes students think I am testing their factual knowledge. In fact, I use the assignment to learn what students think the story of American history is. By “story” I mean the basic interpretive frame they use to make sense of the American past.

This assignment sets up a meeting in which we consider common interpretive scripts for understanding the American past. I give the scripts names such as the glory story, the people versus the elites, and high ideals/mixed results. The project of the course is to learn how to distinguish between plausible and implausible historical interpretations while deciding upon a story to make one’s own.

Here’s the interesting thing. For fifteen years I’ve been paying close attention to the stories students write in the first week of my survey. The data show two trends. First, the number of high schoolers coming to college who understand the American past as a glory story is declining (to less than 20% in 2010). At the same time, another script has made astonishing gains (over 70% of the most recent essays). It is a frame I call one damn thing after another because it is a mere chronology that makes no attempt to interpret its lineup of facts. These histories remind me of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire in which the history of the US from 1949–1989 is presented as a mélange of random, unconnected events.

The decline of narrative I’m observing does not strike me as good news. If most students perceive history as having no story, no drama, and no meaning at all, why would they want to care about history? In fact, most don’t.

The conclusion I draw is that high school teachers must be liberated from the tyranny of coverage. Leading students on a forced march through a textbook drains the life from history education. We can do better.

Too often, the organizing question for secondary history instruction is “what does the teacher/the textbook/the AP Exam/the state board of education want students to know?” Let’s replace that question with “what is the story of American history?”

Getting the question right would be a first step toward creating a signature pedagogy for history. I’m talking about a way of organizing survey courses that imprints on young minds the true nature of historical mindedness. The mark of historical mindedness is not recalling that “this happened and then that happened.” Rather, it is a distinctive sort of questioning and a distinctive method of discovery supported by certain habits, skills, and dispositions. The book to read on this is Bruce vanSledright’s The Challenge of Rethinking History Education (2011). Vansledright’s prescriptions for a signature pedagogy in the secondary classroom will raise the value of history in the Kingdom of Nair. Even for the sans-culottes.