A History of Flawed Teaching

Sam Wineburg, author of "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts" (Temple University Press, 2001), is a professor in Stanford's School of Education.

Imagine this: Nearly a third of the students who apply to Stanford’s master’s in teaching program to become history teachers have never taken a single college course in history. Outrageous? Yes, but it’s part of a well-established national pattern. Among high school history teachers across the country, only 18% have majored (or even minored) in the subject they now teach.

I don’t doubt the dedication of these people. The application statements I read at Stanford shine with a commitment that renews one’s faith in the passion of today’s youth. And nearly every one of these young people is willing to forsake a more lucrative career -- in law, medicine, business -- to pursue teaching.

But how can you teach what you don’t know? Would someone who wanted to teach calculus dare to submit a transcript with no math courses? Would a prospective chemistry teacher come to us with a record devoid of science? Yet with history, the theory goes, all you need is a big heart and a thick book.


The state of California encourages this state of affairs. Although it requires teachers to earn a rigorous teaching credential before they may teach math, English, biology or chemistry in the public school system, there is no such credential for history. Instead, the state hands out a loosey-goosey “social science” credential.

To qualify to teach history in California (and in many other states), you can possess a major in almost anything -- anthropology, psychology, ethnic studies. All you’ve got to do is earn the “social science” credential and pass a multiple-choice exam of historical facts. But a storehouse of facts is the beginning, not the end, of historical understanding.

History courses made up of all facts and no interpretation are guaranteed to put kids to sleep. And that’s exactly what seems to be happening. In a national survey some years ago, 1,500 Americans were asked to “pick one word or phrase to describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school.” “Boring” was the most frequent answer.

It should be obvious why this is. I don’t care how much you know about child psychology or cultural anthropology, when you have to teach the Marshall Plan, the partition of India or the bombing of Hiroshima, you will be no more than a brittle pedagogue if you have no choice but to obey the textbook. History engages students only when their teachers possess deep knowledge; when they don’t, history has the vitality of sawdust.

History comes alive when viewed as a patterned story open to ongoing debate. Did Truman drop the bomb because he wanted to save American lives, as a typical textbook claims, or because he sought to intimidate the Soviet Union and dissuade it from pursuing territorial expansion?

The shopworn saying that a good teacher needs only to stay a chapter ahead of students is widely believed -- but patently false. History is about how events in one age sow the seeds for what happens next. Good teachers foreshadow later lessons when teaching earlier ones -- by helping students see, for instance, that the configuration of power left in the wake of World War II would eventually erupt as the Korean War. History is just a random mess to those who remain a chapter ahead.


Lack of knowledge encourages another bad habit among history teachers: a tendency to disparage “facts,” an eagerness to unshackle students from the “dominant discourse” -- and to teach them, instead, what the teacher views as “the Truth.” What’s scary is the certainty with which this “Truth” is often held. Rather than debating why the United States entered Vietnam or signed the North American Free Trade Agreement or brokered a Camp David accord, all roads lead to the same point: our government’s desire to oppress the less powerful. It is a version of history that conjures up a North Korean reeducation camp rather than a democratic classroom.

We’re in an age when states are tripping over each other to beef up standards for students. But how can we expect students to attain high standards when we set the bar so low for teachers?