Monday, March 8, 2004

Why Johnny doesn't absorb history lessons

Education Q&A

Click here to e-mail Denise Smith Amos
QUESTION: Why do so many history books in grade school and high school leave out so much history, even of recent events? They seem bland. Can't history books tell a story, instead of just conveying facts and dates?

ANSWER: Bland is in the eye of the beholder, but at least one education think tank agrees with this assessment.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform group in Washington, D.C., says some widely used history textbooks are "fat, dull, boring books that mention everything but explain practically nothing."

The institute in recent years has been publishing studies decrying the decline of history and social studies education in American schools.

This year, it rated half of all states' history education standards as inadequate. Its most recent report features a panel of historians who critiqued 12 American and world history texts, concluding that the books don't give students a sense of perspective or priority.

"The books reviewed in this report range from the serviceable to the abysmal," says Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the institute. "And because textbook publishers bend over backward not to offend anybody or upset special interest groups, so much in today's history texts is simplified and sanitized. No judgments need be made."

He cites a National Assessment of Education Progress report that found only one in 10 high school seniors "proficient" in U.S. history and almost three-fifths "below basic."

Among the institute's recommendations: high school history teachers should get degrees in history and not rely on these catch-all texts. Also, states should allow schools to pick their texts instead of states imposing texts on all their public school systems.

History texts try to cover a lot of ground in a few pages, educators say, such as 300 years of American history in 900 pages.

Andy Farfsing, a history teacher at La Salle High School in Monfort Heights, says many teachers do what he does - supplement texts with information from the Internet and other sources.

He uses textbooks mostly for homework, though he may read selected passages in class.

He said he tries to relate parts of history in storytelling form, setting the scene and describing turning points. He invites students to imagine the impact.

Students do projects in groups and individually, researching events that may be broad-brushed in the textbook. They use the school's librarian/ technical expert to launch them on a few key Web sites, he said.

"I think history is too broad. The idea (in textbooks) is to cover the basics,'' he said.

Farfsing doesn't knock history texts; some are good at highlighting timeless themes, he said.

"Especially with world history, you try to relate it to modern-day events as best as you can."


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