6:10 PM | Posted in
Few things draw my ire more than the reflexive blame placed upon public school educators for every ill facing the United States. In few areas is this blame more virulent than in the subject area that I teach, social studies. There is a huge gulf between what conservatives would like us as social studies teachers (more specifically, history teachers) to teach and what truly matters.

Let us take, for example, a writer at the conservative echo chamber True North blames public education for forgetting about antebellum President's such as William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.

Quick: name as many presidents as you can between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. If you can’t name too many don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. With the public schools slowly replacing American History with gay and lesbian rights seminars, women’s studies and basket weaving, some names have been forgotten.

One hopes that there is a certain level of snark here but I rarely hold out too much hope for sanity from the fringe right here in Minnesota.

First, let us be clear that American History is alive and well and being taught throughout the state of Minnesota in accordance with state standards. In fact, I teach the first half of American History every single day to 8th graders and this is the second, more in depth go around for students, given that they have had this information in 5th grade.

Second, the crux of this argument is that these names should NOT be forgotten and shame on both young people and public education for allowing it to happen. I beg to differ with this point. In the greater scheme of United States History and the various important people and events found within that history, William Henry Harrison & Zachary Taylor matter very little. To think that in the 400 years of history I am charged with covering that these two names would represent high priority subjects is absolute foolishness.

This is precisely why students have a reflexive hatred of history because blowhards demand that every little detail deserves the same amount of space and teachers end up doing nothing more than rote memorization of every one of those details. We end up with a curriculum that is a mile wide, an inch deep, and lacking of any true substance that makes the subject both interesting and fascinating. It is a story I hear time and time again as parents tell me they hated history in school but now love the subject and cannot get enough. There is a reason for that and it is because once out of school they begin to take in the broader stories and are not hindered by the factoid nature that is placed upon them. Once conservatives realize this and cut out their crusade for rote memorization of every date and person we will find much more common ground. If we can move to telling the broader story of America in all its variations, then students will become interested in our history and take it upon themselves to learn more of the details such as the story of Harrison or Taylor.

Let us be honest, William Henry Harrison matters very little in the greater story of America and if he is largely forgotten it matters little. If you were President of the United States for roughly a month you are going to be forgotten. Beyond Harrison, the rest of the antebellum President's are forgotten or largely ignored NOT because of some insane conspiracy of public education but because this series of President's were so weak and did so few things of importance that they themselves created their forgotten stature. The social history of the time overshadows them and should be the focal point of any study of this time period.

For what it's worth, I do bring up both Harrison and Taylor in passing as examples of what not to do if you ever become the President of the United States. For example, if you ever become President and it is a cold inauguration day and you are preparing to give the longest speech in history it is probably a good idea to put on a coat so that you can avoid the ensuing pneumonia. Also, if you decide to attend a 4th of July celebration and it is beastly hot outside, then it might be a good idea to take off your heavy coat and avoid gorging on cold foods that will exacerbate the heat stroke.

It is great if you want to dig down and examine the lives of relatively unknown figures in history (I did my thesis paper on Richard Brinsley Sheridan) but please stop blaming society and public education for not exalting your favorite unimportant historical figure!


1 Response to "Blame Educators First..."

  1. eric zaetsch On November 13, 2008 at 4:43 PM

    Do you teach that the Canadians kicked ass in the North American rattling during the Napoleonic wars?

    Burning Washington is, well, like winning.

    Anyway - the schools are deficient. So there.

    I have no other way to explain the number of votes McCain-Palin attained, than a failure of public education, to educate.