The following is a portion of a letter to the editor that appeared in the June 15, 2009 NY Times. It addresses purported changes in the ways history is taught, but it is rooted in a larger perspective I have encountered many times and I bring it to our blog as a springboard to raise a few underlying pedagogical questions.
“During the 1980s, I taught United States history to American soldiers stationed in South Korea. In one fairly typical class, not one of the students had heard of the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps their high school teachers considered the subject a mere matter of military history. But most of the people who fought and died at Gettysburg were ordinary Americans, and our lives would be very different now if the ones wearing blue had stayed home.”
A number of assumptions here are worth questioning. What first leaps out at me is the notion that if students seem not to recognize a topic, or don’t respond to questions about it, it is ipso facto clear that they don’t know anything about it and that they weren’t taught about the subject. I’m really quite flummoxed by these assumptions.
Students refrain from expressing familiarity with a topic for a great many reasons. In addition to the straightforward proposition that they indeed don’t know anything about it, there are oh so many other possibilities. It may be because they’re shy about participating in discussions; because they don’t remember clearly what they were taught; because they’re uncertain about how what they recall will be received by the instructor or fellow students; because there’s tension between what they learned and what they believe; or because of any other of a host of social and/or interpersonal dynamics in the classroom. To conclude that students don’t know about something simply because they don’t readily respond to questions about it is to misunderstand the social milieu of one’s own classroom.
It equally the case that students often don’t recall what they’ve learned until a context for the topic is fleshed out. As the subject is discussed and elaborated upon, gradual recognition and recollection may bring it slowly back to mind.
Students, of course, do forget much they’ve been taught. It’s unlikely that most students could recapitulate everything that’s been covered in a single class period, let alone an entire semester. The fact that students claim not to recall something is a very poor guide to whether they’ve ever been taught it.
The Battle of Gettysburg is remembered primarily because of the speech President Lincoln made to consecrate the memorial there. Without downplaying its size and significance, I nevertheless point out that it was only one battle out of many fought during the Civil War, and that ordinary Americans fought in them all. It strikes me as odd that knowledge about a single battle would be used as evidence of ignorance about the meaning of an entire war.
Finally, my own operating principle is that if students don’t know (or remember) something that I think is important, it’s my job to figure out how to teach it to them in such a way that they will remember it, rather than rail at them for not knowing it.