Just the Facts, Ma’am

What should good history teaching look like?  As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, conservative critics have warned that the new Advanced Placement US History framework pushes a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”  Now, two big historical associations have defended the guidelines.  But those associations are downplaying a central reason why so many conservative critics object to the APUSH framework.

Anyone with ears to hear can’t miss the conservative concern about the tenor of the new APUSH framework.  From the Republican National Convention to the blogosphere to the stuffed-shirt crowd, conservative pundits have teed off on the new guidelines for the advanced history classes.

Time and again, conservative activists such as Larry Krieger have warned that the new guidelines leave out key documents such as the Mayflower Compact and teach children that America’s history is the story of white exploitation, greed, and genocide.

The National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have published letters in defense of the APUSH guidelines.  Mainly, these history groups insist that the new framework is not biased.  As the AHA puts it,

The AHA objects to mischaracterizations of the framework as anti-American, purposefully incomplete, radical, and/or partisan.

The 2012 framework reflects the increased focus among history educators in recent years on teaching students to think historically, rather than emphasizing the memorization of facts, names, and dates.  This emphasis on skills, on habits of mind, helps our students acquire the ability to understand and learn from key events, social changes, and documents, including those which provide the foundations of this nation and its subsequent evolution.  The authors of the framework took seriously the obligation of our schools to create actively thinking and engaged citizens, which included understanding the importance of context, evidence, and chronology to an appreciation of the past.

But there is a minor theme in these defenses.  In the snippet above, the AHA signatories mention that good history education goes beyond the “memorization of facts.”  Similarly, the NCHE insists, “The point of education is not simply to acquire a specific body of information.”

But for many conservative activists and their supporters, the definition of education is precisely the acquisition of knowledge.  And that definition has proven enormously politically powerful over the years.  Please don’t get me wrong—I’m an ardent supporter and sometime member of both the NCHE and the AHA.  But these letters downplay the culture-wars significance of what Paolo Freire called the “banking” model of education.

Not that conservative critics aren’t concerned with the partisan tone of the new guidelines.  That is certainly a key motivating factor for many, I’m sure.  But behind and beyond those worries lies a deeper conservative concern with the definition of education itself.  Not all, certainly, but many conservatives want education in general to remain the transmission of a set of knowledge from teacher to student.

This notion of proper education is so deep and so profound that it often goes unarticulated.  Conservatives—and many allies who wouldn’t call themselves conservative—simply assume that education consists of acquiring knowledge, of memorizing facts.  And this assumption lurks behind many of the big education reforms of our century.  The test-heavy aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act and the new Common Core standards rely on a notion of good education as the transmission of information.  If a student has really learned something, the thinking goes, a test can find out.

For over a century, progressive educators have railed against this powerful assumption about the nature of education.  But for just as long, conservative activists have worked hard to keep this idea of education at the center of public schooling.  As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have been able to rally support for this “banking” vision of proper education in every generation.

In the 1930s, for instance, one leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution defined education precisely as a body of ideas that “shall be transmitted by us to our children.”

And in his popular 1949 book And Madly Teach, pundit Mortimer Smith insisted that true education consisted precisely of transmitting the children “the whole heritage of man’s progress through history.”

Similarly, in 1950, an angry letter-writer in the Pasadena Independent insisted on the transmission model as the only proper method of education.  As this writer put it,

Children have the right to learn by being taught all and more than their parents and grandparents learned—one step ahead instead of backward, through each generation.

Perhaps the most articulate advocate for this notion of traditional, transmissive education was California State Superintendent of Public Education Max Rafferty.  In his official jobs and his syndicated newspaper column, Rafferty insisted that the only worthwhile definition of education was the transmission of knowledge from adult to child.  Two fundamental principles of “common sense” in education, Rafferty argued in 1964, were the following:

  • Common sense told us that the schools are built and equipped and staffed largely to pass on from generation to generation the cultural heritage of the race.

  • Common sense took for granted that children could memorize certain meaningful and important things in early life and remember them better in later years than they could things that they had not memorized.

We could list a thousand more examples.  This tradition among conservative activists has remained so powerful that it often goes without saying.  And it lurks behind conservative agitation against each new generation of progressive educational reform.

So when groups such as the AHA and the NCHE defend the new APUSH guidelines, they should spend more time explaining and defending their notion that good education relies on more than just the memorization of facts.  For many parents and teachers, the transmission of those facts is precisely the definition of good education.

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  1. Similarly, the NCHE insists, “The point of education is not simply to acquire a specific body of information.”

    But for many conservative activists and their supporters, the definition of education is precisely the acquisition of knowledge.

    I’ll note that there was a paragraph break between the two sentences that I quoted.

    Still, I think the point is clear. You are treating “knowledge” and “body of information” as about the same. To me, those are very different. I see knowledge as involving far more than a body of information.

    In my experience, many scientists see knowledge as very different from belief, while many philosophers see knowledge as mostly a matter of having the appropriate beliefs.

    Your point is, I think, clear enough and seems to be correct. That is, conservatives see the role of education to be the acquisition of a body of information, while others see education as having a larger role. But I think your use of the word “knowledge” is unfortunate and leads to a bit of confusion.

    For myself, I do see education as mainly being for the acquisition of knowledge. But, for me, the APUSH framework is better suited to acquiring knowledge than is the kind of memorization activity favored by many conservatives.

    • How are you defining knowledge then, Neil? I think (and I imagine the supporters of APUSH are too) that good education involves the ability to apply knowledge in new contexts, to analyse knowledge, to decide which knowledge is relevant, to make connections between disparate bodies of knowledge, to evaluate information, and to use that learning to create new knowledge.

      You may have guessed that I’m using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning as a framework here, along with probably everyone who thinks learning involves more than acquiring a body of knowledge. I think Adam meant knowledge in this sense, as widely used by educators, which really just means “remembering information”.

      But I’d challenge the conservatives’ assumption that learning can be “just the facts”. Given that there’s no way children can learn all the facts, the information available to them is necessarily partial. By ‘partial’, I mean ‘incomplete’, but incomplete almost certainly also means ‘biased’.

      Besides which, maybe the facts simply favour the view of American history as one of “white exploitation, greed, and genocide”. There is no reason to assume that giving “all the facts”, were it possible, would result in politically neutral information. Giving “all the facts” about the Holocaust, for example, would not paint the Nazis in a good light.

      What the conservatives actually seem to be arguing for is not only a fact-based education; it’s a selective presentation of those facts which favours American greatness.

      Adam, thank you for tolerating my first-year undergraduate foray into the philosophy of history. And, now I think about it, apologies if I’ve seemed patronising, Neil, since this is an area in which you know more than me.

      • How are you defining knowledge then, Neil?

        I don’t try to define it. I see knowledge as intimately connected with cognition (and consciousness and all that).

        I think (and I imagine the supporters of APUSH are too) that good education involves the ability to apply knowledge in new contexts, to analyse knowledge, to decide which knowledge is relevant, to make connections between disparate bodies of knowledge, to evaluate information, and to use that learning to create new knowledge.

        I see knowledge as being that ability to apply and analyze facts, to settle questions of relevancy, etc. The facts can be printed in a book, but the book doesn’t know anything. In terms used by philosophers, I see knowledge as closely connected to intentionality and meaning.

        At somewhere around 12 years of age, I recall reading about a test of scientific knowledge. And Einstein flunked the test. His response was that he can look those facts up whenever he needs them. And perhaps that impressed me. Knowledge could not be the facts themselves, which we can look up as needed. Knowledge must have more to do with our ability to connect those facts with reality and with real problems.

        I suppose we are a bit off-topic. On the other hand, I think this really is the core disagreement between conservatism and APUSH.

  2. Tim

     /  August 27, 2014

    I don’t know that I could speak authoritatively to either educational theories in general or conservative educational theories, but I know from attending homeschool conferences that there is a not too narrow stream of thought among conservative homeschoolers favoring the trivium – grammer, logic, rhetoric – which starts with memorization in the earlier years, moves to formal logic in the junior high and early high school years, and then focuses on creatively and effectively communicating original thoughts or aguments in the final years. The idea is not that memorization is the end-all and be-all of education, but that in early years the child often seems eager to acquire facts and the child’s brain is developmentally ready to do the work of memorization, whether it is dates and names or times tables. Later on, memorization becomes less important, but what was memorized earlier provides raw materials to work with in the development of reasoning skills, and then reasoning in the development of creativity. All that to say that I don’t think conservatives across the board are solely interested in stuffing facts into young skulls. And several studies have shown that memorizing, for example, times tables, helps develop brains in ways that enable them to more readily acquire the subsequent mathematical reasoning skills. Are progressives opposed to all rote memorization?

    But beyond educational theories which place more or less emphasis on transmitting facts to the student and testing the ability of the student to regurgitate the facts, I think conservatives might differ with progressives on what sets of facts, particularly sets of historical facts, the student should be exposed to, and why. What narratives should our future citizens embrace as explanations for who and what we are in the world?

  3. I applaud the efforts of APUSH. The basic facts are learned in elementary schools. Middle and high school students need to go beyond the basics, learn about the complexities of history, and learn how to apply this to current events. History is the story of people, and if certain groups are ignored, or if the philosophies of our leaders is not explored, we have a one dimensional view of history. I wish we had APUSH when I was in high school.

  4. Peggy Trivilino

     /  August 29, 2014

    Do you want to hear something really amazing. From grades 1 – 12 I attended a school that taught the traditional academic college-prep curriculum complete with four years of math and science. We were also encouraged to think critically and analytically and to use philosophical reflection and an open mind when forming our worldview. Now here’s the really good part–the school was an all-girls Catholic convent school and the time was the 1950’s and early ’60’s. It was the Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsborough, MA; our nuns were the order of Notre Dame de Namur. Sure, we had large doses of Catholic doctrine and dogma and church history. But we also received a top-notch college-prep education that enabled us girls to get into the most academically challenging colleges and universities and to shine once we got there. I have to laugh a little now, when I think back and realize what a thoroughly ahead-of-its-time progressive education I received–from nuns yet! (Btw, the academy opened its doors in 1854 and it’s still going strong–graduating extremely well-educated girls and sending them out to change the world.)

  5. myonlyissue

     /  August 29, 2014

    Thia blog is proof that liberalism is a mental disorder.

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