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Education Reporter

The Disappearance of History
Many observers complain that the NAEP and other assessment tests increasingly measure students’ feelings and attitudes rather than basic skills and factual knowledge. According to author and education expert Charlotte Iserbyt, "about 60% of the NAEP test questions are attitudinal. American education isn't about academics," she writes, "but about social engineering and job training."

An editorial by journalist Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe (5-5-02), titled "The Disappearing History Term Paper" bears out the contention of some experts that students are focusing more on their "feelings" about history than on its substance. After criticizing the grand prize-winning essays for 1999 and 2000 in Prentice Hall's nationwide "What History Means To Me" competition, Jacoby noted that high school students are producing "what they are expected to produce, soft little compositions based on feelings and impressions, not research and evidence."

Following is the opening paragraph of the winning history essay chosen by Prentice Hall in 1999: "Mesopotamia. The Renaissance. Christopher Columbus. The Constitution. Civil War. Normandy. Martin Luther King Jr. Sputnik. Vietnam. History is more than a series of events; it's more than just stories and pictures; it's more than just people. History is a unique combination of people, places, events, and circumstances that come together to reveal the character of the peoples, nations, and worlds of the past. Thus, when I look at history, a variety of thoughts and interpretations come to mind. Without the past, there would be no present."

Jacoby opined that there was very little substance in any of this essay's four short paragraphs, which netted its author a $2,500 scholarship. "I would pronounce it flabby, trite, and somewhat dull," he wrote. "It reflects no real intellectual effort. It incorporates little research. "

In contrast, Jacoby described the essays written by high school students which appear in Massachusetts' Concord Review. These are "serious essays on historical topics by high school students throughout the English-speaking world," he said. "Unlike Prentice Hall, which asks students to write no more than 750 words on their feelings about history, the Concord Review invites essays of 4,000 to 6,000 words, plus endnotes and bibliography. Students who undertake such essays are rewarded with a great sense of accomplishment, enhanced research and writing skills, and considerable knowledge of the subject they studied."

Here is an excerpt from one such essay: "On March 8, 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War, the CSS Virginia steamed out of Norfolk, VA, and headed for Hampton Roads, an estuary that empties into the Chesapeake Bay. She was 263 feet long, and her decks extended fore and aft of a 172-foot box along the waterline. Her builders armed her with 10 guns of various sizes and, strangely, a ram. More importantly, they also covered the box with three inches of flattened railroad irons. Though the Virginia must have looked unusual among the other ships of her time, her armor made her almost invincible."

Concord Review Editor Will Fitzhugh, who is also president and founder of the National Writing Board, lamented in an Education Week commentary (1-16-02) that schools now focus on creative writing, fear of plagiarism and other factors which "have been augmented by a notable absence of concern for term papers in virtually all the work on state standards." This combination, he asserts, "has produced a situation in which far too many high school students never get the chance to do the reading or the writing that a serious history paper requires."

This doesn't surprise some educators, including Mrs. Iserbyt, who have warned about the dismantling of traditional instruction for years. Not only has American history been dumbed down, Iserbyt points out, it has also been globalized under its modern title of "social studies."

This shift was apparent as long ago as April 30, 1972, when a front-page article in the New York Times described a history teacher who began his career 10 years earlier "just about as teachers had for generations. He drilled students on names and dates. He talked a lot about kings and presidents. And he worked from a standard text whose patriotic theme held that the United States was ‘founded on the highest principles that men of good will and common sense have been able to put into practice.'"

The Times conceded that, by 1972, this teacher had "abandoned the traditional text and set his students to analyzing all revolutions, not just the American, and from all points of view, including the British one that George Washington was both a traitor and an inept general."

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