Monday, June 22, 2015


Content is History

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review 

22 June 2015

Not too long ago, when people were talking about putting content back into education, so that we would have "content-based" education, I remember wondering at the time, "Who took the content out of education? When did this happen? After it was removed, what was left?" With the new APUSH standards, I now have a better answer to the last question. Skills have taken the place of content. Content, after all, can be such a pain. What if someone asks you something and you don't know what they are talking about? Now you can just say "I was educated in critical thinking skills, and we moved far beyond content in my day." Another advantage is that with the content largely removed, the hard work of choosing what the content of a curriculum should be no longer needs to be faced (addressed).

A couple of years ago, at a Pioneer Institute conference in Boston, David Steiner, then the Commissioner of Education in New York State, responded to a question about History in the schools by saying, "History is so politically toxic no one wants to touch it." This may in part be a legacy of the anti-American UCLA National History Standards back in the day, and the vigorous fight over them, but now I think we are facing a deeper fear of knowledge itself, not just a fear of Historical knowledge.

Who can say any more what History students should know? Doesn't every group, every family, ever person even, have their own History? And aren't they important? So how can we be so discriminatory as to choose to teach some History and not some other History?

Beyond that, the deconstructionists have taught us that we can know nothing anyway, so why try to teach History? I had an amusing experience as a high school History teacher once. I had been saying that I thought we ought to be teaching important events, the accomplishments of great individuals, the pursuit of truth, and like that. My department chairman, a philosophy teacher, later came over to me and said, in the most compassionate way possible: "You know, Will, there is no Truth." This took a while to sink in, and it was only later that I thought I should have said to him: "Is that True?!?"

Trotsky said that you may not be interested in War, but War is interested in you. That might be said of History as well. David Coleman and company are trying their darnedest to turn History in the schools into exercises of the New Criticism, so that, laying aside any Historical context, it becomes possible (and desirable) to study Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and other passages from History [no one is suggesting that high school students read an actual complete History book—except me], not for their meaning, impact, or relevance at the time, but rather for their tone, metaphor, simile, diction, and other categories of literary criticism. These techniques can be applied, and, it is argued, should be applied, to any Historical document, to relieve students of any need to know any Historical facts, and enable them to enjoy their exercise of the technical skills of New Critical Literary Analysis.

Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, in Children’s Minds, Talking Rabbits & Clockwork Oranges, [Teachers College Press, 1999] wrote that: “When history becomes an agent of socializing, it begins to develop a different aim from that which distinguishes history as an academic discipline. The aim of history as a discipline is to come to understand the past on its own terms and, in its uniqueness, as far as possible. However difficult, or indeed impossible, the ideal achievement of this aim, it is what the discipline of history is about...We can’t do anything to history, except not use it....”

So David Coleman et al, taking this as advice not to use history, as it were, decided to limit our students’ knowledge of the History of their country with APUSH, and to mix what they do offer with a general bashing of western civilization, but in spite of their best efforts to perpetuate student ignorance and to teach them to be ashamed of their own country, History isn't going to go anywhere. We are not working for Big Brother, yet.

Often people find that they are more interested in History as they have lived through more of it, and that will not change. The new APUSH standards may sustain the ignorance of many students for a little longer, and may lead many to think, for a while, that they should despise this country, but that effect will wear off as they experience more of life. The College Board can do quite a bit of harm, of course, but it will not last. Curiosity, and History, and even Patriotism (remember that?) will yet have their day here...