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December 20, 2005

Under fire for teaching history

According to a Chuck Muth of Citizen Outreach in Nevada:
Joe Enge is an award-winning veteran history teacher in Carson City, Nevada.  Three years ago, Joe blew the whistle on the school district which was pushing a curriculum that "truncated" U.S. history.  Instead of teaching ALL of U.S. history to ALL students, the 11th-grade U.S. history course began with Reconstruction - leaving out the colonial-era and Revolutionary War periods or relegating them to "review" status at the beginning of the school year. Unless you were an advance-placement student - in which case you were taught about our nation's founding in depth in the 11th grade. Ever since Joe raised this issue, the school district has been trying to get rid of him.   (From The Enge Files)
Following is an op ed piece wrtitten by Mr. Enge printed in History News Network last month. Joseph Enge teaches history at Carson High School, Carson City, Nevada.

A High School History Teacher Under Fire for Teaching Facts Speaks Out
By Joseph Enge
The Carson City (NV) school district says 11th-grade history teachers should start teaching American history at the Civil War period and move forward. But one experienced, award-winning teacher is standing up to this History-Lite policy and is insisting on teaching about our nation's colonial and Founding eras. And he might lose his job over it. Citizen Outreach is asking people to sign an online petition to save his job. -- Petition to Save Joe Enge's Job
What is the historians version of the Hippocratic Oath? Herodotus as The Father of History has not left us one as far as I know. Given the disturbing trends towards disparaging the teaching of historical facts in public schools, we may want to consider writing such an oath regarding the sacred duty history teachers have to impart our heritage to the next generation. Perhaps it could read, I will not water down history content or the methodology of teaching history to conform to any given educational fad or political correctness that slashes and burns through our subject. Our foremost duty is to the integrity of history facts and the best interests of our students.

In addition to our new oath, we could consider forming the history police to investigate pressures put on history teachers in public schools to cut corners lest they rock the boat. I am only half joking. One has only to watch The Tonights Show Jaywalking where Jay Leno asks people on the streets the most basic of history questions to concur our graduates of public schools do not know historical facts.

In reality and to the astonishment of many, teachers are told not to be fact-fixated when teaching of history. The word facts is almost used as an expletive in modern education. We are told students need to have a feel for the period and jump right into critical thinking and dialog with each other. Facts we are told only promote lower order thinking and are a waste of time as facts change in an ever changing world. Wow! What nonsense.

Whisper the nonsense part if you are a history teacher in a public school. Those of us fixated on facts are labeled Neanderthals and dinosaurs in American public educations version of the Cultural Revolution. Todays educational Young Turks are taught to look with disdain on the factual dinosaurs by the schools of education that control the licensing of teachers.

Another disturbing trend in modern education is the focus on social history to the point that students can receive good grades on a historical topic and never learn or cover the major events. Jay Matthews, in the Washington Post (May 28, 2004) article: " Students Don't Know Much About WW II Except the Internment Camps," gave such an example. Teachers are pressured to cover these issues at the expense of the dates, battles, and leaders to the point that many of the history teaching staff have weak backgrounds in these basics. This in turn reinforces the trend not to cover the MolotovRibbentropp Pact, Pearl Harbor, and Stalingrad in any detail or with real meaning.

I currently find myself in a rather interesting predicament of resisting the cutting of U.S. history content and being forced to apply questionable educational methods. I have been told to play ball or else94 by school district authorities. I rock the boat of public school history education in my little part of the world because I know how to swim. I understand others in the boat resent it being rocked, but wonder where compromise begins and selling out ends. We all have different beltlines. Mine has been reached.

I pointed out serious errors of my school district in addressing the state history standards (which I helped author) . In retaliation school officials have rated me unsatisfactory and are intent on making me an example of what happens when a teacher steps out of line. My years of experience including being a Fulbright teacher and Madison Fellow have been denigrated by district administration as not relevant to being a good teacher in their attempt to marginalize me and my objections. The two history textbooks I have written in the last two years are dismissed as simply having to do with content and are also considered irrelevant to what they call education.

While this appears backwards and rather confusing to most, it makes perfect sense in the minds of too many in public education. It is a fundamental ideological struggle for the control of the teaching of history, a struggle between content-oriented historians versus the educational methodologists that are set to apply their process style of teaching that manipulates content at will. They have the tail wagging the dog with the allure of not having to bother with the years of historical study required to be (formerly) fully competent to teach history.

The premise of traditional historical education is to learn the key people, places, and events and only then build upon these solid foundations toward real critical thinking regarding the topic. This teacher-centered model of instruction is considered bad teaching by student-centered theorists.

With student-centered teaching, students share their ideas and feelings in groups, as Heather MacDonald wrote in her 1998 work, The Flaw in Student-Centered Learning:
In such a classroom, the teacher is not supposed to teach, since teaching is considered too hierarchical and authoritarian. Worse, traditional lecturing presumes that the teacher actually knows something the students don't, an idea that is anathema to ed-school egalitarianism. The ideal student-centered classroom lacks a fixed curriculum. The student's own interests determine what he or she learns, with the teacher acting as mere "facilitator."
The use of the word facilitator exposes the key ideological difference of the methodology. While states still issue teaching licenses, the new teachers are not being trained to teach, rather facilitate. I can assume the people on the streets interviewed by Jay Leno were facilitated and not taught history.

Admittedly, forming a history police may be too far-fetched. They would be unnecessary if we had historical ethics and stood by them. Lets toy with the idea of a historians oath. We should definitely look towards taking the power of licensing history teachers from schools of education and require them to obtain the stamp of approval from hard core history Neanderthals like us, assuming there are any of us left.

[Reprinted with permission of the author.]

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