Monday, February 13, 2012

Teachers Are Not Dentists; Madison, Wisconsin

(and students are not patients)

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
13 February 2012

If I were to attend a convention of dentists, I would expect to see a lot of panels and presentations on what dentists do. New veneer techniques, the best compounds for fillings, root canal methods, successful implant procedures and the like. Of course, there would be little to no attention to what patients do, other than whether they seem to be following the recommendations to brush, floss and use the rubber tip at home. After all, the dentists are the trained paid professionals and it is what they do that is important.

Conventions of history teachers, one might guess, would be different. Of course there would be panels and presentations on class management methods, grading practices, the best history slide shows and films, the recommended history textbooks, the most effective lecture techniques, and interesting field trips, perhaps.

However, as at the dentists’ convention, surprisingly there would usually be almost nothing on what the patients (that is, the students) are doing in history. After all, the teachers are the trained and paid professionals and what they do is the most important thing.

Or is it? Remember, a dental patient’s job is to shut up, sit there, and take it. Is this really what we want from students? In too many history classes, it is. A dental patient could, if it were practicable, leave her brain at home. A history student always has his brain with him in the classroom, ready for employment.

If someone were to propose a revolution in history instruction, it might be one that would accept the fact that students are not passive vessels, with cavities of ignorance for the teacher to drill into and fill with the necessary knowledge, but rather active, thinking, curious, growing young people with brains and a capacity for serious academic work.

But this is very hard for teachers to do in practice. When it is suggested that students might benefit from reading a complete history book on their own, and from working on a serious history research papers, objections are raised. Many history educators will claim that high school students are not able (can’t?, won’t?, never been asked?) to read a history book, and the universal argument is that serious research papers take too much of a teacher’s time (the teacher’s, not the student’s time—when students are spending 53 hours a week with electronic entertainment media).

History teachers say they cannot afford to assign, guide, monitor, read and grade serious research papers by their students. So our students now, almost without exception, go off to college, to face the term papers and nonfiction books at that level, and thanks to us they have never read one complete nonfiction book or written one serious history research paper. They don’t know how to do those things, because we have decided they couldn’t do them and have not asked them to do such academic work.

Nothing of the sort happens in sports. “Scholar-Athletes” (so often celebrated for their athletic accomplishments in the local paper) are not sent off to play college basketball never having been taught to dribble, pass, and shoot the basketball, or to play football, never having been asked to block and tackle. That would be irresponsible of us, right?

I notice that, while high school chemistry classes require lab work, and biology classes require lab work (and laboratories cost money), the science teachers do not claim that students are incapable of such work or that they do not have the time to assign, guide, monitor, read and grade lab reports.

I do realize that these days, STEM is imagined to be more important than the ROOTS of history and academic literacy—the ability to read nonfiction books and write research papers—but perhaps if we were to stop and think that our students are not passive dental patients, but young people with brains on board, fully capable of actually “doing” history, through reading books and writing papers, rather than just submitting to whatever presentation we have developed to keep them in their seats, then the day may come when a convention of history teachers will even include teachers talking about the academic work their students are doing in history, and even—imagine the day!—it might feature presentations by students on the papers they have written, and, in some cases, had published in The Concord Review. There have been 989 of such exemplary history papers now, by students from 46 states and 38 other countries since 1987, and on the few Emerson Prize occasions when the students were indeed allowed to talk at a meeting about their research, the teachers in attendance were well and truly interested to hear what they had to say.

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