Paul Horton: On the Teaching of History

Sep 1, 2015 by

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An Interview with Paul Horton: On the Teaching of History

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Paul, you recently posted a piece about living in dialog ( which I have posted below ) What was the MAIN point you were trying to make ? new-history-wars/

The main point that I was trying to make is that the culture wars have no place in history classes. Good history is inclusive. Good teachers can combine social history with traditional political and military narratives. Good history teachers understand that religion is a very complex and foundational aspect of United States History and that Americans are exceptional. This does not mean that teachers should be teaching “providential history” as some ministers would, it means understanding that the idea of “providential history” has shaped the thinking of some Americans and groups of Americans in very important ways.

What is written in a textbook or in a set of standards is not history. History is not set in stone. It is not like the Ten Commandants. Ed Ayers, a very good historian and President of the University of Richmond, is fond of saying that revisionist history is a good thing, like revisionist science. We find new evidence all of the time and good history changes to incorporate that new evidence. History changes, perspectives change, and new perspectives are added to achieve a fuller, better-developed story.

Most history teachers are neither on the left or the right, they simply want to communicate to their students how important, and complex, the American story is. It is time to stop “waving the bloody shirt” of the culture wars.

The encouragement and the training of history teachers are more important than supporting or fighting a particular history curriculum. History teachers should have history degrees and they should be passionate about teaching history. The best thing we can do as concerned citizens is to encourage the best-prepared and most passionate candidates to pursue teaching careers.

Good history teachers require their students to read, debate, think, and write. Good history teachers are going to make sure that their students are exposed to different points of view and that they discuss as many issues from as many points of view as possible.

If I have a concern about the AP United States History curriculum, it is that I think that the AP program is not a Holy Grail. US News and World Report and Jay Matthews have encouraged the AP cult. Educrats seems to be in love with the idea of enrolling as many students as possible in AP courses to make their schools look better. While AP might raise the bar at many schools, it does not necessarily prepare kids for college level courses in history that require much more reading and much more focus on research and research writing.

When I travel, I tour college bookstores to get an idea of what lower level college history courses require. Yesterday, for example, I visited the Grinnell College student bookstore. Neither the current nor the former AP US curriculum will adequately prepare a student for a lower division History course at Grinnell. The amount of reading and analysis required to succeed in a Grinnell course is light years ahead of what AP requires. I also visited the University of Iowa bookstore and found similar requirements for a major public university. Most college professor readers at AP reading don’t think that a student should get credit for anything less than a 5, and most do not believe than the multiple choice section of the test measures anything significant.

2) Tell us about these “history wars” and the way in which history has been seen by the left and the right.

The left tends to be identified by the right as promoting social history, identity politics based on victimization narratives, and as hostile to the role of religion in American history. Many veterans don’t believe that the left respects the very real heroism displayed by Americans during wars. There is some truth in this critique because the AP tends to deemphasize military history in favor of free response questions that focus on the more hotly debated issues of race, class, and gender history. On the other hand, the left sees its efforts as attempting to integrate the history of important reform movements, minorities, and political perspectives that were absent from most textbooks and courses until the late seventies as a legacy of Cold War conservatism and McCarthyite anticommunism. So we have a kind of tug of war that intensifies every few years: the debate over the NEH standards in the early and mid nineties is reigniting with the controversy surrounding the Jefferson County (Jeffco) Colorado suspension of the new AP curriculum and the attempts by conservatives to modify the new AP US..

3) In your mind, what is the best preparation for college for history majors?

AP does not prepare students for college history courses. Rigorous history teaching prepares students of college courses. Students should read narrative histories, primary and secondary sources, and interpretive articles. They should be required to prepare short analytical papers and research papers. Multiple-choice questions do not prepare students for college history or humanities courses. I give students reading quizzes, but my quizzes are not multiple-choice.

4) Where does writing a history research paper come in?

Writing research papers are important because they truly measure a student’s ability to think like an historian. Writing a research paper is a very complex task with many steps. If a student can prepare a B+ or an A paper, he or she is college ready. The mark of an excellent college student in the making is a desire to revise and polish, a desire to achieve excellence.
5) What are some typical books that you believe should be read by high school students that are serious about history?
Any book in the Oxford American History. A serious student will be willing to read the best historians in each field: for example Alan Taylor in colonial history, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Eric Foner, John Lewis Gaddis, David Kennedy, James T Patterson, Heather Cox Richardson, Jacqueline Jones, Nancy Cott, Ed Ayers, Ramon Gutierrez, Annette Gordon Reed, Jill Lepore, David Levering Lewis, David Brion Davis, Thomas Holt, and Ira Berlin. These are just a few of the great American historians writing today. We are losing great historians every year, national treasures like Robert Remini, the renowned antebellum scholar, to name one. And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the finest popular history writer of his generation, a master of beautiful narrative prose, David McCullough.

6) How does history and the humanities overlap—or do they?

History and Humanities are inseparable, without a serious engagement of both we are lost. With all of our emphasis on STEM we are in danger of losing our collective stories. Stories give lives, cultures, and nations meaning. We have no purpose without epics, without stories, without places in spaces and time that require us to confront who we are and what we need to become. Ethical and religious meaning cannot be found in a void or a vacuum. History and the humanities enrich our lives and we cannot allow our bickering devalue their importance or their potential to allow us to envision a common future.

7) Critical thinking – how much does it need to be integrated into the curriculum?

Critical thinking is the core of the process of learning history, it goes back to Thucydides. Students must apply rules of evidence to sources and compare sources of evidence to construct solid interpretations. One cannot separate what Educrats call “critical thinking” from learning about history. Learning history is learning how to think.

8) Discussion and debate- can they occur in on line classes- or must teachers be present to challenge students to think critically about causality?

Discussions can happen digitally, but I believe in face-to-face interaction. I believe, like Dewey, that learning is an organic process. A community is built as a group of people learn to trust one another and take risks, to challenge other opinions respectfully. I am old-fashioned; I think democracy is face to face, on the agora or in the classroom. Civility, listening, respectful dissent, working together to construct solutions—these are the building blocks of civil society and the genius of democratic culture that builds the kind of institutions that Tocqueville described. I am a Quaker at heart and I like a circle in my classroom. I do not believe that digital instruction or communication is quality communication, too much expression is left out, including the concentration required to be fully present.

9) What would E.D. Hirch and Joy Hakin have to say to teachers who wanted to create their own course?

Hirsch is concerned with cultural literacy and I would say that we lose something when we start making lists. I am all in favor of key understandings but I am more in favor of Hakim’s narrative approach. Stories make everything meaningful. Great teachers are great storytellers. Lousy teachers teach to the test and well intended lists are all too easily molded into an assembly-line approach that is in one ear and out the other, kind of like AP students using flashcards to prepare for the objective part of the AP exam. These kids tell me that don’t remember a thing in a couple of weeks. What is the point of this? Hakim is a great narrative writer and I will go for her approach every time; there is a reason why great epic stories are remembered.

10) Is there an important body of knowledge that needs to be mastered to be a historian?

I think it is not a question of a body of knowledge, but rather how one responds to important questions and whether or not one learns to ask incisive questions that is a measure of attainment of historical knowledge. “If it can be memorized, it is not history.” Great historians are great sifters, questioners, puzzle-solvers, and synthetic thinkers. Facts are in the middle of everything that they do, but facts separated from a narrative have no meaning. Historians are storytellers who must apply strict standards to their story telling. I used to do some archeological fieldwork, and my mentors used to say, “it is not what you find, it is what you find out.” Facts have no meaning without a careful examination of context. Discreet item testing, in my opinion, has no place the history classroom.

11) Tell us about your school history journal.

Our school history journal, InFlame, is completely student run. Our student editors go to the University of Chicago Press for training. They put together submission guidelines, their own style sheet, assessment rubrics, formatting, design guidelines, and their editorial process. The editorial review process is double blind, so that the students do not know who student submitters are when they assess a paper for possible publication. There was so much interest among our students in writing for publication because several of our students had been published in the Concord Review. InFlame is published twice a year and features three to four student papers and an interview of an historian, usually a graduate of our school.

12) What have I neglected to ask?

I would say that teachers, parents, and students of history should be concerned with the College Board as a corporation. The College Board should not set the standards for the entire country. The recent revision of the elementary and Secondary Education Act has demonstrated a great deal of concern about the Federal Government acting too strongly to shape curricula. The College Board has been very aggressive in marketing its products through professional development, political lobbying, and the attempt to create K-12 vertical teaming. The College Board, ETS, Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill, and Harcourt Brace are big businesses and they all want bigger market share. I would say that all educators and parents should be very concerned standardized testing in general. Hundreds of colleges and universities all over the country have conducted their own studies and have determined that SAT or ACT scores do not predict success in college. Most of these colleges and universities no longer require the SAT or ACT for admission. I have been a classroom teacher for 34 years and in my experience many of the hardest working and most successful students I have taught have not scored well on the ACT, SAT, or the United States History AP. In the case of the US AP, the test is normed on objective multiple-choice questions. As a grader I was asked to score higher or lower depending on how my group of student essays scored on the multiple-choice questions. As a teacher with a lot of experience, I do not consider the AP US History exam as a result to be a valid measure of student ability or potential. As a teacher who interviews former students and speaks regularly to college professors, I know that AP does not require the depth of reading, thinking, or writing to adequately prepare an excellent student for a college history course. A well-taught AP US course is not, in my opinion, the equivalent of an average freshman level course at a public or private university or college. I believe that these corporations are out to make a buck and that they all have an interest in perpetuating a very expensive sham.

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