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


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.