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We Need a National Standard for the Teaching of High School History

by Paul Combs 2 months ago in high school
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And the same textbooks for every student everywhere

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Many people naturally assume that the teaching of history in schools is standardized across the United States, but this is, in reality, not the case at all. While all students are required to take American History classes both to graduate and to be accepted into a university, what is taught in those classes can vary significantly both in different parts of the country and even within individual states. This is because each of the 50 states sets certain academic standards, including the crucial decision about which textbooks will be used and what information those books contain. Each local school district makes further decisions for their city or district, and each teacher brings their own personal beliefs and biases to the classroom.

The choice of which textbook students will use to learn history is the first, and in many ways, most important step in the process. It’s from these books that students get the first impression of the history they’re studying, even before the teacher’s take on the subject. It’s to these textbooks that the students will (in theory at least) turn when they are studying on their own. Thus, who chooses this gateway text is critical.

So who actually does choose the textbooks? That will vary somewhat from state to state, but in most cases the books are chosen by a committee under the authority of the State Board of Education. These committees are made up of both teachers and political appointees, and it’s with this second group that both the variation between states and the trouble it brings usually begins.

Political appointees are, obviously, political beings, and they reflect the beliefs of the governor or legislature that appointed them. The appointees and the texts they select for students will tend to be more liberal in liberal states and more conservative in conservative ones. This is an often overlooked aspect of the two parties’ quest to control the executive and legislative branches of as many state governments as possible.

Most of us recognize the impact of a party setting the legislative agenda or appointing like-minded judges (a deeply flawed process in itself), but few of us stop to think about how this control impacts the teaching and thus the worldview of future generations. To be fair, most of the members of these textbook committees, both teachers and political appointees, go into the job with the best of intentions, not with the goal of spreading propaganda-level history. But they do come with their own baggage regarding their view of history, which can ultimately cause an American History textbook in Boston to be quite different, in sometimes subtle and sometimes glaring ways, from one in Jackson, Mississippi.

In Texas, where I live, there are often bitter fights within the selection committee itself that reflect the views of the members. For example, there was a blowup a few years ago over the choice of a revised Texas History textbook that removed a phrase calling the defenders of the Alamo “heroes,” with many members of the board arguing that the phrase didn’t belong. A majority of both politicians and parents went absolutely nuts over the proposed change, and “heroes” stayed in the book.

In an earlier piece I wrote about the history of the Alamo, you can see that the controversy could have easily been avoided if we would simply both teach the real history of the event and acknowledge that combatants on both sides of the battle fought heroically. However, that apparently requires a level of historical honesty that is too much effort for some. Calling the defenders heroic is perfectly acceptable; calling the Mexican troops villains by contrast is not.

On both a state and national level, the battle continues over the teaching of Critical Race Theory (an issue I will not even attempt to get into here). The battle also continues over the portrayal of Christopher Columbus in school textbooks. Until around 40 years ago, Columbus was always presented in glowing terms as a near-saintly visionary who set off boldly to discover America and benevolently brought civilization to the native peoples he encountered. As we now know, of course, the actual facts are quite different; the problem is that many textbooks have swung in the extreme opposite direction, portraying Columbus as little more than a 15th century combination of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, a rapacious destroyer of civilizations far superior to his own who sought only riches and glory. The historical facts, as is usually the case, include parts of both versions, and these facts should be acknowledged and taught. An incomplete accounting of historical events and people gives students not just a skewed, revisionist version of history, but an incomplete account of who we are today and how we got here.

The other intangible affecting how our kids learn history is the teachers themselves. This happens for myriad reasons, because while the majority of our teachers are dedicated to both their subject matter and their students there are some glaring exceptions, two of which come immediately to mind. First, there are the unqualified history teachers, and there are arguably more of these than in any other high school subject. That is because since in most states sports coaches are required to also teach classes, it is most often history that gets the teachers that know a lot about blitzing a quarterback and almost nothing about the Nazi blitzkrieg of World War II. Their teaching of history can be both inadequate and revisionist because their knowledge of it is limited, but their often-evident disinterest in their subject is even more damaging. They essentially leave the students to learn, or more often not learn, the subject matter on their own.

The second exception to the dedicated teacher of history is the activist teacher. This teacher goes into the classroom with a set agenda and presents only the parts of history that suit their political and social worldview. Often what they teach is the very epitomes of revisionist history, with little resemblance to the actual events. In universities this most often leans leftward, toward a liberal interpretation, but in high schools it can easily lean either left or right, depending on the region, state, or city; neither are a good thing. It is just as much a disservice, to students and to history itself, for an ultra-conservative teacher to present a jingoistic, America-First view of our history as it is for a far-left teacher to present the United States as the Great Satan that has done nothing but evil since its founding 250 years ago.

I wish there was a simple solution to this problem, but there is not. One positive step would be requiring that teachers actually have a degree in the subject they are teaching; a physical education degree from Texas A&M does not qualify you to teach high school chemistry, and it shouldn’t qualify you to teach American History either. Another would be to change the way our high school history textbooks are chosen. If we are truly a nation and not simply a loose collection of states, we should have a national standard for our history textbooks so that a student in Seattle learns the same information as a student in Miami. We would never allow such wide variation nationwide in the teaching of science and math (though Florida is doing its best to prove me wrong about that), so why do we allow it with history? A national panel made up solely of respected historians, with no political appointees allowed, could make a world of difference.

We may have to start out more basic than that, though. Nothing will change until we all acknowledge that real history, honest history, factual history truly matters. Until we get to that point, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve always done, which is the very definition of insanity.

First published on Medium.com.

high school

About the author

Paul Combs

I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.

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