The DPI's devaluing of history

February 14, 2010 

— The current changes suggested by the state Department of Public Instruction for the K-12 history and social studies curriculum in North Carolina are part of a long decline in history and other humanities in our schools.

Our students spend half as much time on history and social studies as they did 10 years ago. Our elementary school students spend only 30 minutes per week studying history or social studies, on average, according to a recent study.

The claim by DPI officials that more history will be taught under the new proposals is misleading. They propose to replace history courses, such as world history in ninth grade, with "studies" courses that focus on recent events.

They propose that the U.S. history course in high school, which is taught in one block semester, should begin in 1877, after Reconstruction. They say that the first half of American history will be covered in earlier grades, especially seventh. But a quick look at the seventh-grade course - on the state, nation and world from 1600-1970 - shows that it is in fact mostly a course about North Carolina history, as mandated by state law.

The same course also covers U.S. history and world history. If 11th-graders can't cover all of U.S. history in one block semester, how are seventh-graders supposed to cover three different subjects in a year?

Many important subjects are missing from every grade, K-12, such as the Civil War and slavery. Studying them in high school, when the students are more mature, is also essential, as these historical events, including the American Revolution and America's founding, are complex and important.

World history, the history of the Middle East, Asia and Africa, is also being slashed to the bone. Why? It appears that the DPI decided that history was not an important skill for the 21st century. In an effort to do "curricular innovation" to obtain federal grants, they are introducing courses that make students "citizens of the world."

While I'm not opposed to such efforts, I am opposed to such courses replacing history courses, particularly in the face of the cuts borne by history already.

In 2003, the DPI cut coverage significantly when it changed to block scheduling. Partly as a result, it began the U.S. history course in 1789, and I can see the results of those last revisions in the college students I teach. Many of them are clueless about American history before that.

I hear the same thing from other professors across the state, especially at community colleges. The Lost Colony is really lost, and students don't understand what the Revolution meant.

On Monday, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged at the Emerging Issues Forum in Raleigh that the curriculum in schools across the country has become increasingly narrow as a result of so much "teaching to the tests" in math and literacy. Many teachers have told me that "if it's not tested, it's not taught."

Our focus on testing may increase test scores, but it comes with real costs that we have not been confronting. Testing leads to repetition, memorization and boredom as well as a narrow curriculum.

Secretary Duncan indicated that one of the purposes of the Race to the Top grants was to encourage states to innovate in ways that make the curriculum richer, and that history is an important subject to teach. North Carolina should be a leader in that race, not taking steps in the opposite direction.

History, and the arts and humanities, foster a spirit of inquiry and an ability to synthesize and understand complex ideas. These are skills that are more and more in demand. Math and literacy are indispensable, but the context, the knowledge, the lessons that history also indispensable for our citizens in the 21st century.

Most important of all, we should remember the reason why public schools were established in the United States after the American Revolution. The purpose was to teach history so that the young Republic would be sustained by an informed citizenry. That purpose is as important today as it was then.

Holly Brewer is associate professor of Colonial and Revolutionary American history at N.C. State University. She has taught future teachers for more than 15 years. This year, she is also a fellow at the National Humanities Center.

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