Harry Potter and the Half-Wit Historian (Windbag Journo Edition)

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Back on July 28, the "dean" (as in Wormer) of DC journalists David Broder gave voice to historian David McCullough's bitching that history is being orphaned in the nation's K-12 public schools. The most tangible result of this national shame cum crisis is, doubtless, the ability of McCullough to top bestseller lists every time he excretes a new homage to the Founding Fathers. And, potentially, an inability for fourth-graders to enjoy fully some jokes on The Simpsons.

Broder writes:

Late [in June], the prolific historian had said in a Senate hearing that his examination of school history textbooks had shown a disquieting trend. Over the years, he said, he has noticed that the typeface in those books is growing larger, the illustrations are more lavish and the content is shrinking. The authors and the teachers using these textbooks "seem to assume that students don't like to read," he said, "and then Harry Potter comes along and blows it all away."…

McCullough, whose latest volume, "1776," is a nonfiction bestseller, was the star witness at a hearing convened by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Ted Kennedy to air their concerns about what they called "U.S. History: Our Worst Subject?"….

Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, noted that "according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as 'the nation's report card,' fewer students have just a basic understanding of American history than have a basic understanding of any other subject which we test—including math, science and reading."

Broder gets the vapors recounting for the umpteenth time stats about how American schoolkids don't know stuff like when the War of 1812 started, who's buried in Grant's Tomb, "that the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. in World War II," and "how government spending during the Great Depression affected the economy."

What's interesting is that Broder and McCullough (whose most recent book, 1776, is selling about as well as the latest Harry Potter tome) and presidential punchline Lamar Alexander (or, as his campaign has it, Lamar!) see the crap results in U.S. history as an ominous new trend. The fact is that youth has been disappointing their elders in America since the Puritans signed on in desperation to the Half-Way Covenant as a way of making peace with the kids. When it comes to recent trends in NAEP data shows something different: Basically, there's a flat line, with some marginal improvement, in both history and its kissing cousin, civics.

The NAEP last checked history trends by looking at achievement scores of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders in 1994 and 2001. The results: "Average U.S. history scores for fourth- and eighth-graders were higher in 2001 than in 1994, while the performance of twelfth-graders remained relatively stable." With civics, the story is pretty much the same: "In both 1988 and 1998, students at each of the three grade levels answered about two-thirds of the assessment questions correctly."

The data for history and civics, by the same way, mirror longer-term trends in reading and math–basically flat, with some positive upticks. So there's no reason to believe things are getting monstrously worse, whether the subject is history or anything else.

Of course, none of this should be confused as an apology for the status quo. If academic performance is flat, spending to achieve that result has gone up tremendously. For a rough measure of that, chew on this: Between 1988 and 2002, per pupil expenditure went up about $2,000, from $7,500 to $9,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Should we spend more of available time and resources on, say, history, rather than English? Who the hell knows. Pace Lamar!, is it so awful that kids know more about math, reading, and science than they do about history? Mebbe, mebbe not. The ability of McCullough and other historians to sell tons of books suggest the nation can route around shitty grammar school teachers pretty well. Not that we should have to.

Which brings me to a larger point: If Broder, McCullough, Teddy K, and Lamar! really want to see some sort of major shift in U.S. education, they should stop holding hearings on this or that subject and instead throw open the floodgates to vouchers, charters, and other changes that would allow for true innovation in education.

NEXT: An Open Bottle

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  1. Lamar and Roy Blount were once co-editors of the Vanderbilt University “Hustler” newspaper.
    Does that clarify anything?

    Whatever they perpetrated was not my fault as I was a lowly frosh.

  2. Broder has his basement full of canned H2O and Spam.

    I’m just sayin’.

  3. If Thor were a bureaucrat, money would be pronounced Mjolnir.

  4. I gave up on McCullough after reading one of his puff pieces on FDR…

  5. I don’t know what’s wose, the pontificating by the academic, or that Congress is holding hearings. Damn that Ted Kennedy, he really is the brother who wasn’t worth a bullet.

  6. David McCullough isn’t my kind of historian. His work borders too much on hero worship rather than critical analysis for me to get into it.

  7. There’s rich irony in Broder lamenting the decline of historical education in American schools. As an abiding liberal, he has championed the premier cause of educational decline in general, which is government involvement. Another liberal, but one who pretends not to be, George Bush, has mightily contributed to this harmful trend by forcing federal government direction of education with his No Child Left Behind. This program diminishes choice and, no surprise; it was advocated as doing the opposite.

    A lack of choice is one of the chief causes of the underperformance for consumers in all areas with government involvement, including education, medical care and post retirement living (social security).

  8. …BTW, for an example of government involvement harming the consumer in the medical area, see this from the current issue of Reason:

    Locking Up Life-Saving Drugs
    Prescription laws make us sicker and poorer.

    https://www.reason.com/0508/fe.kh.locking.shtml

  9. Only public schools, their government masters, and their union-drone employees could make American history so boring and irrelevant that kids don’t bother to learn it.

    But yes, they’ve managed to do just that…just as they did with literature and science. (No matter how well it’s taught, it requires a special kind of nerd to get excited about math. But most subjects nominally taught in our schools are intrinsically interesting enough that the universality of student apathy toward them can only be explained by the reference to the drones doing most of the teaching and all of the textbook-writing.)

  10. Timothy, please don’t call McCullough an academic. We have enough pompous asses in academia without him. As far as I know, the new King of Pop History (RIP Ambrose) has never taught a semester in his life.

    On another educational front, some industrial council just put out a desperate plea for American schools to produce twice the number of engineers and scientists they currently do. (My Dean’s an engineer, so he sent an e-mail about this to our whole faculty.) So even those who advocate the subjects where students might be getting more instruction aren’t happy.

    Personally, I’d like to see more freshmen that know when to use “its” and “it’s”. Bemoaning the ways in which your subject is ignored by the school system and the poor preparation of your students in that area (“What ARE they teaching these kids?”) is part of the job, just like grading papers. Lobbying is lobbying, whether the target is a school board or those hundred schoolmarms in the Senate.

  11. Broder should worry more about math scores, by which I mean his own. I was at a D.C. cocktail-party gathering of “moderate” Republicans once, and Broder stopped by because, as we all know, he’s all about moderation, except when it comes to the actual cocktails. At any rate, he overestimated the size of the moderate GOP turnout by about one-third in his subsequent Washington Post filler, um, I mean column.

    I know, it was ptobably just wishful thinking getting the better of him.

  12. Hey Matt, I don’t think I like that remark of yours. I always got excited about math, and eventually earned a Ph.D. in the subject. Now you are telling me that I must be some special kind of nerd? I don’t think so.

    Anyway, I agree completely that the gov’t has messed up education a lot. There is no doubt in my mind that the best thing Congress could do to fix the current education situation is to get the Federal gov’t completely out of it. It is unconstitutional for the Feds to be in education.

    But I think that if the schools were private, and parents had free choice, then in a least some of the schools there would be teachers who could get kids excited about math whether or not they were nerds of a special kind.

  13. Aren’t these the same folks who were bitching when Mel Gibson was The Patriot?

  14. If we’re concerned about getting kids to learn more history, we need to change the way we teach it. Listing of facts and dates and wars, while important, are primarily unengaging. As one who has always loved memoirs and biographies, I would suggest that diaries, memoirs, and even historical fiction be used as supplements to make history more real and interesting to students. It could certainly be paired with literature and writing requirements, if teachers were at all interested in being creative about it.

  15. The fact is that youth has been disappointing their elders in America since the Puritans signed on in desperation to the Half-Way Covenant as a way of making peace with the kids.
    I would say youth has been disappointing their elders since there were elders.

  16. RE the 1:16 AM comment: To be fair, I should note that Bush is far more sensible than most other liberals on taxation and SS.

  17. In general, point taken. But the Halfway Covenant
    isn’t the best example for the argument. Instead of being an example of “the kids” falling away from old beliefs, it was actually brought about by “the kids” taking the old beliefs so seriously that they became agonizingly scrupulous over whether they’d actually had a conversion experience.

  18. RE the 1:16 AM comment: To be fair, I should note that Bush is far more sensible than most other liberals on taxation and SS.

    Yeah, and Tom Cruise looks downright well adjusted next to Jeffrey Dahmer.

  19. “If we’re concerned about getting kids to learn more history, we need to change the way we teach it. Listing of facts and dates and wars, while important, are primarily unengaging.”

    When did you attend school, 1952??? If anything, the teaching of history in recent decades is insufficiently concerned with listing facts or dates.

  20. The data for history and civics, by the same way, mirror longer-term trends in reading and math–basically flat, with some positive upticks. So there’s no reason to believe things are getting monstrously worse, whether the subject is history or anything else.

    I think Nick is making an assumption here that present-day testing levels are the same as ones from the era of walking barefoot to school uphill both ways in three feet of snow.

  21. SR

    I had a whole US history test in high school devoted to important dates in American history. Granted, I got an A, but primarily broad timelines are boring and only are useful in over tea conversations, where random trivia is desired. I’m not complaining, but I think level of dates taught in school various from school to school.

    One thing I think should get more than window dressing in school however is Economics. Its one of the fundemental drives in this country and it appears even our glorious leaders have merely vague understandings of the “invisible hand”. It was individuals that built this country, it was the collective force of producers and consumers.

  22. one correction

    It wasn’t individuals that built this country, it was the collective force of producers and consumers.

  23. What’s great about David Broder is that, when I wake up in the middle of the night sweating bullets, terrified that I don’t know what the conventional wisdom is at that particular moment, all I have to do is enter his name into a search engine, and all is well.

  24. lots of interesting points on a subject for which I have mixed emotions.

    Regarding nick’s statements about vouchers and charter schools, vouchers – as they’ve been employed in Florida have been a major disapointment. As predicted, very few people who actually qualify – that is people in underperforming school districts – actually use them to send their kids to better schools.

    Why? Because there are a host of OTHER problems that impact use. In addition to having parents who give enough of a shit to do something about it, there are transportation, access and scheduling issues that make MANAGING circumstances difficult to impossible.

    Charter schools are another story…and a pathetically sad one at that. Most are run by incompetents and kooks and have closed due to poor performance or financial mismanagement or both.

    Matt makes an interesting point with, “Only public schools, their government masters, and their union-drone employees could make American history so boring and irrelevant that kids don’t bother to learn it.

    Since conservatives (at least as evidenced by the No Chind Left Behind B.S.) are dedicated to reducing the full scope of public education to rote memorization drills and getting rid of music, literature and art classes, I fail to see where they could possibly be an improvement.

    As an aside, I don’t understand what teachers have done to make so many of you despise them so much. I’m sure many of you have had at least SOME good educational experiences in a public school.

    Imagine having to teach in an environment where some students are parents, many don’t care and aren’t interested, discipline and violence are regular problems that parents do little curtail.

    You know, it’s an automatic felony to verbally assault a health care worker or airline personel. Yet teachers, some of whom deal with such issues regularly to the detriment of their mental and physical well-being as well as the order in a classroom, don’t have such protection.

    For chrissakes, we live in a world where that even has to be a factor. When I was a kid, I don’t remember things being like that.

    These issues are hardly the fault of the teacher whether or not they are unionized or not. I know some teachers. None of them went into it for the money. The ones I know have a drive and a love of helping children learn. Some were dissatisfied with public schools and switched to private. Others got out all together. You know who THEY blame?

    C’mon…take a guess. It’s not government, or politicians or principles or police.

    It’s parents. Lazy parents who don’t show an interest or instill any discipline until something happens. Then it’s all the teacher’s fault.

    The kid can’t read. The kid can’t sit the fuck down. The kid can’t hang up his cell phone while teacher’s tring to teach. Kid’s pregnant. Kid’s got to turn every class into a game of brinksmanship and mindgames. Kid’s an asshole.

    Parent’s never read to their kid. Parent doesn’t help with homework (let alone check to make sure it’s done). Parent doesn’t come to parent-teacher conferences. Parent refuses to believe their kid is a disciplne problem. Parent’s an asshole.

    But the sorry state of education is all the teacher’s fault.

    Yeah.

    Right.

  25. “Lamar!” – I totally forgot about that. LOL!

  26. Two things:

    1) Broder may be forgetting that the Cold War drastically upped the emphasis in public schools on math and science. History was the obvious place to reduce emphasis in order to ramp up math and science.

    2) My seventh grade history class taught us that “laissez-faire” was a bad thing. If that’s what kind of history we’re teaching, I hope history gets de-emphasized even more.

  27. Don Mynack, there is a big difference between blaming teachers and blaming teachers’ unions. The unions are unquestionably part of the problem. The teachers are individuals.

    nmg

  28. Schools have become babysitting camps. Problem children (and there have always been those) used to be removed from the school so that the other children could learn. Now, they run the classroom, since to discipline or remove them is to threaten some bogus lawsuit.

  29. “The dean (as in `wormer’)” … another Nick
    the Dude classic. I could not have said it
    better.

    Jeff

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