Losing Our History, Losing Ourselves
American history or any historical study is endangered today in America’s elementary schools. As the realities of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became the driving force behind curriculum, time committed to history shrank. Why is history taught, why is history important? History defines a people. Not surprisingly as nation states emerged, history rose in importance. The elementary school is the first point at which a person engages in the organized study of their country’s history, their past. NCLB has driven that history away—from 45 minutes a day to 45 minutes every other day if that much. History along with science was hit by assemblies, testing, and everything else to preserve math and reading times. The results are becoming clear.
Eight years ago some schools were departmentalizing their 5th and 6th grades, meaning that teachers with expertise in a discipline whether it was history/social studies, science, math, or language arts taught that subject to all the fifth or sixth graders. One could expect that student achievement and interest would rise after exposure to a teacher who had specific training in that subject and was energized by the subject. The state of history was good and appeared to be getting better.
While history teachers of all ages may wince at the historical generalizations of upper elementary students, at least they had a sense of the national story. That story may have relied heavily on Pilgrims, presidents, and heroic figures, but the students had a baseline from which they could build. They continued through the scope and sequence of adding complexity and ambiguity to the story. The goal always was to provide a base for identity and for the responsibilities of citizenship.
Today, however, middle school teachers talk about having to start from zero. Students come to their classrooms knowing virtually nothing about their nation, its government, or the duties and responsibilities of a citizen. Jefferson is crying in his tomb. How can a democracy survive when its people do not know or understand their past?
If losing or delaying until eighth grade the ability to know and understand the history of one’s nation is a problem, the state of state history is worse. When one looks at the standard scope and sequence of a K-12 curriculum, the place one learns about the history and government of his or her state and local area has been in elementary school. Fourth grade is typically where students in Wisconsin study Wisconsin history. The next appearance of state history may be in high school where it is attached sidecar style to the motorcycle of U. S. history. The history of the state is an afterthought, often unsupported by a textbook in high school. A popular Wisconsin history for high school courses is now out of print.
From the inception of public education in the United States, teaching citizenship through the teaching of the nation’s history has often been a primary purpose of education. No longer is that goal a true part of most elementary curricula. Teachers are told to teach history by reading sources to increase literacy skills. While practice improves skills, historical reading is about analysis of the content within a context. One must “do” something with the reading. That act of doing requires context beyond the document, as Sam Wineburg’s research has shown (1).
For earlier generations an appreciation of history began in elementary school by learning the stories of Valley Forge and Daniel Boone, exploring the Oregon Trail, confronting and grappling with the pain and sorrows of diverse peoples coming to live together. The stories were often simplified and romanticized, but engaged students found a way to create seed beds from these stories that were ready for cultivation later in their academic careers. In later grades students came to understand the elementary stories as models and lessons to be applied to the world. History in the elementary schools needs to be taught as a base for the search for meaning, not just as a method to improve reading levels.
A nation without history is but an empty shell. The present state of history in the elementary schools is in danger of becoming an empty shell despite the efforts of effective, dedicated teachers. We live in a nation too concerned about the now of commerce and career and not concerned with the spirit of the people we have been and may remain. Acknowledging the important place of history within the elementary curriculum is the first step toward a better education and a wiser nation.