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Left Behind: Academic Segregation and the Expanding History Education Deficit

Recently a physical fitness expert came to a local school to work with staff and students on promoting healthy habits. Before leaving he brought forth a pile of prizes to award to students who were able to answer seemingly innocuous questions. One of his questions, “Who can tell me the capital of California?” was met with blank stares. Finally, one brave young man raised his hand, yelling, “I know! Capital C!” Silence resumed until he was awarded the prize for effort and cuteness. After all, technically, he was correct. The scene worsened as adult onlookers audibly groaned, however, when the students were unable to name our nation’s first president.

Amidst the sadness and humor, the history lovers present recognized the poignancy of the moment: our students often do not even know their geographic location, let alone how we came to be a nation. They might decode words, read short passages, and solve for x in simple equations, but fall short when faced with the task of speaking to other content areas. They learn the basics of what we teach them, gaining the ability to critically tackle tests, moving forward through respective grade levels. In the end, many do not learn the basics of geography, the history of our nation, the importance of civic function, or the meaning of constitutional freedom.

I see a critical point often overlooked: American schools segregate subjects instead of allowing the natural overlap between them.

As an educator and teacher trainer I have taught and observed scores of teachers over the years and have witnessed many debates about our national decline in the quality of history education in America. In the past three years, observing in over 300 elementary classrooms, I witnessed little history instruction—but plenty of reading and mathematics and a smattering of science. In time I began informally asking why teachers were not teaching history and received typical answers: no time, too much emphasis on standardized testing, etc. One teacher retorted, “Can I really be expected to teach history when these students can’t speak English and need to pass a reading test at the end of the year?” When it comes to explaining why our students are falling behind in their history education, time-consuming preparation for standardized reading and mathematics testing seemingly reigns supreme on the list of reasons.

But alas, is testing truly the only culprit here? Among the issues, I see a critical point often overlooked: American schools segregate subjects instead of allowing the natural overlap between them. For example, the single subject of reading currently taught as a skill-based activity through anthologies containing short, irrelevant reading passages, could be instead utilized to teach history and prepare students for civic involvement. Classical Education proponent Leigh Bortins notes that “Whether reciting one of Cicero’s addresses . . . or the Mayflower Compact, since the early 1600s schoolchildren in America were expected to memorize and effectively deliver influential political statements in order to ensure they understood the role of a citizen” (1).

Truthfully, there is no subject that exists apart from history, an all-encompassing and constantly growing subject.

We gasp, however, upon encountering the sophisticated language in these classics and primary sources, and for the same reasons we struggle with the language of Shakespeare, we stumble through the documents, speeches, and accounts of history: we simply do not study them, let alone use them to teach reading or serve as models for our own writing. Moreover, if indeed we write the way we speak, one can easily surmise the sharp contrast between our language skills and those of our forefathers, especially in our world of tweeting, texting, and slang. Thus, the chasm widens and we stand little chance of instilling in students the value and skill of using civic language through the characters, plots, and settings of formulaic reading curricula during their daily block of reading instruction. Therein lies a source of major challenge in our schools: American students inherently view reading as an isolated skill rather than a tool invaluable to further learning.

Truthfully, there is no subject that exists apart from history, an all-encompassing and constantly growing subject. Because every new thought, idea, effort, occurrence, and event becomes a part of its realm, it stands to reason that the less we read, instruct, and learn of the history and legacy of our nation and world, the further behind we fall.

(1)L.A. Bortins, The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).