Saturday, October 03, 2009

Facing facts: History students need to know them

Sept. 20, 2009

What, exactly, does a young Texan learn about the world and its history? The State Board of Education has until spring 2010 to answer that question. They'll need every minute.

Early rounds of the debate have been highly political, heavy on ridiculous points of contention. Should sixth-graders know what Christmas is? Should Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez be removed from our history books, and Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich inserted? Should we stop telling fourth-graders that the United States has a “democratic” form of government and instead describe it as “republican”?

So far, it's been conservatives who've called to make the curriculum more specific, with more points that teachers, textbooks and standardized tests would be required to cover. That specificity often goes over the top.

One reviewer, for instance, suggested that classes should study not just the major Founding Fathers, but 250 others, such as John Witherspoon and Gouverneur Morris.

At that level of detail, summer would come before U.S. history classes reached the War of 1812.

But that doesn't mean that a detailed curriculum is bad — or in the interest only of conservatives.

In his new book The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, E.D. Hirsch Jr., argues powerfully that our schools overemphasize “learning strategies” at the expense of actual content.

“Reading comprehension,” for instance, isn't just a matter of knowing words and parts of speech, but of understanding the concepts that lurk beneath every sentence.

Most Americans, for instance, can't make sense of stories covering rugby. What's a wicket? What does it mean to be “leg-before” or “shown the dreaded finger of an inside edge”?

To function as citizens, Hirsch argues, our kids need a shared body of background knowledge. That knowledge is especially powerful for immigrant kids, or kids whose parents aren't well-educated — kids less likely to have picked up that information at home.

The devil, of course, is in the details: Which facts need to be taught? What things do we, as Texans and Americans, all agree are true and important?

Those are hard questions to answer. But we need to be specific.

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