A Student of History

December 15, 2006

From the Fordham Institute

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 9:26 pm
The Consequences of a “Narrowing” K-12 Curriculum
Neglecting history, civics, literature and the arts threatens U.S. economic competitiveness, leaders say

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Doubling the time that schools devote to math and reading in response to state and federal testing requirements won’t truly prepare young Americans for life in the 21st century. It probably won’t even boost reading and math scores long term, concluded a conference of policymakers, business leaders, and educators today.

At the event, hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and supported by the Louis Calder Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, scholars and education leaders highlighted alternatives to a hyper-narrow curriculum, including testing added subjects like history, lengthening the school day to encompass art and music, and providing stronger curricular guidance and instructional materials for teachers.

“Narrowing the K-12 curriculum isn’t just a problem that arrived with No Child Left Behind,” said Fordham president Chester E. Finn, Jr. “Since the dawn of standards-based education reform, some states and schools have reacted to pressure for better basic skills by squeezing out history, civics, literature, and the arts. This is wrong. Our kids need both to walk and chew gum and our schools must prepare them accordingly, ensuring that they’re adept in the basic skills while also acquiring a broad liberal arts education.”

Business leaders, including technology mastermind Dr. Sidney Harman; artists, including poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia; statesmen, historians, and practicing educators from around the country gathered at the Fordham symposium, Beyond The Basics: Why reading, math, and science aren’t sufficient for a 21st century education, to ponder possible remedies, including:

  • Increasing instructional time in U.S. classrooms. According to data newly analyzed by Kate Walsh, president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, students in some cities (e.g. Chicago) spend the equivalent of eight weeks less in school per year than their peers in other cities (e.g. New York). Such sharp differences mean less time for learning basics—and everything else.
  • Adding subjects to the testing docket. Brown University scholar Martin West presented research showing that, at a national level, instructional time for reading has risen dramatically while time for non-tested subjects such as history has eroded. However, states that test students in history haven’t experienced these same declines; their students spend more time studying history than in other states. UNESCO researcher Aaron Benavot also found that U.S. primary schools spend more time on reading instruction—and less on the arts—than do other OECD nations.
  • Equipping teachers with better instructional materials and professional development to teach a well-rounded curriculum. A range of leaders including Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and Antonia Cortese of the American Federation of Teachers faulted states for lacking a coherent curriculum that teachers can use in class. As most state standards are too vague to be helpful, teachers crave clear expectations and powerful classroom tools.

“The narrowing of the curriculum is not an inevitable response to testing and accountability,” said education historian Diane Ravitch. “Some schools, districts, and states have done a better job ensuring a broad education for all of their students, and they deserve to be emulated. The educators in charge of schools must hew close to a vision of a good education for their students, regardless of NCLB requirements.”

In the coming months, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will release a volume highlighting today’s discussions and conclusions. To view the Beyond the Basics Symposium via Webcast, visit http://www.widmeyer.tv/webcast/beyondthebasics

Nationally and in our home state of Ohio, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute strives to close America’s vexing achievement gaps by raising standards, strengthening accountability, and expanding high-quality education options for parents and families. For more information about the Institute’s work, visit http://www.edexcellence.net.

August 7, 2006

Wicked History, again!

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 9:41 pm

About a week ago, I posted on Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia that has come under some fire recently, for a number of issues including false entries, and inaccuracies as well.  The previous post is here. Now, just in time, The Onion has a spoof of Wikipedia’s troubles, including this:

Wikipedia, the online, reader-edited encyclopedia, honored the 750th anniversary of American independence on July 25 with a special featured section on its main page Tuesday.  “It would have been a major oversight to ignore this portentous anniversary,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose site now boasts over 4,300,000 articles in multiple languages, over one-quarter of which are in English, including 11,000 concerning popular toys of the 1980s alone. “At 750 years, the U.S. is by far the world’s oldest surviving democracy, and is certainly deserving of our recognition,” Wales said. “According to our database, that’s 212 years older than the Eiffel Tower, 347 years older than the earliest-known woolly-mammoth fossil, and a full 493 years older than the microwave oven.”

The complete article is here.

August 3, 2006

Wicked history

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 11:34 pm

The at the website of the Atlantic Monthly is an article on Wikepedia, which is described there as “history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge.”  As the author mentions, “instead of relying on experts to write articles according to their expertise, Wikipedia lets anyone write about anything. You, I, and any wired-up fool can add entries, change entries, even propose that entries be deleted.”  It is a long piece, but quite good, and can be accessed here.

Wikipedia has come under some fire of late, mainly due to its open format in that anyone can make changes to an entry, or provide factually incorrect information to the entries.  As one critic has written, “The credentials of the people authoring grassroots Web journals and a committee-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia are often unclear. Nevertheless, some Internet users believe that such resources can collectively portray events more accurately than any single gatekeeper.”  Or, somebody can write misleading things as well, such as in cases of political or religious controversies.  For example, on the Wikepedia site, look up “Mormonism,” and one can see the problems involved in trying to be objective. 

A number of months ago, stories splashed all over the web and in print about credibility questions concerning Wikipedia.  See this article, for example. USA Today reports on a case of character assassination by somebody who placed a false article or entry at Wikipedia.  It seems that someone wrote a biographical entry on a man, in which it stated that the subject was somehow involved in the assassinations of JFK & RFK.  Since authorship is anonymous, there was no trail back to whomever penned these accusations.  A related column on this well-reported issue is here. Luckily, a man in Nashville has admitted that, in trying to shock a colleague with a joke, he put false information into this Wikipedia entry. The New York Times concludes that “At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts- one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.”  A summary of some of the criticisms is here as well.

The problem for historians who teach is that students love to use it when writing papers, since it pops up so easily.  Just “Google” a historical figure or event and see how many Wikipedia entries pop up first, or close to the top.  But it isn’t just that the site is easy to use–what opponents of its frequent use by students say is that the information can be, well, wrong!  See “How Much do you trust Wikipedia,” an on-line piece here.  It links many stories about this issue, so for further reading it is valuable.  One quote from it:

The concept of “collective knowledge” is often lauded as the next step toward truth in online media. But recent scuffles over inaccuracies in Wikipedia entries call into question the reliability of the medium. Some scathing press and ongoing abuses of the site’s open format caused Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to limit the article submission process. But doubts about whether these changes will mean more accurate entries are still circulating.

Here is an example of the factual issues.  I looked up “The Battle of Camden” within the site’s search box, and took the first entry, here. The text states: “Each army by a night march attempted to surprise the other, and fought a confused skirmish at Waxhaws. The next morning, both armies deployed face-to-face. Gates placed Baron de Kalb’s troops on his right flank and the militia on his left, and ordered De Kalb forward.”  Guess what?  There are two mistakes in this brief exerpt.  The confused skirmish was not at the Waxhaws, and Gates did not order Kalb’s troops forward.  Doesn’t that make you wonder how much else could be factually wrong at the site?

July 19, 2006

“Daughter” of Christ???

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 3:26 am

I only take up this story due to its unusual lack of credibility, and for grins.  The fact that USA Today covered it is telling as well.

Is the world ready for a book and an author more controversial than Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code? Meet Kathleen McGowan, novelist and self-proclaimed descendant of a union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. McGowan, who says she is from the “sacred bloodline” Brown made famous in his mega-selling novel, says she’s ready to cope with people who think she’s crazy or a heretic. 

I suppose if you can’t write a nutty best seller, you can be a nut instead.

“Daughter” of Christ???

July 12, 2006

History defies a just-the-facts approach…

Filed under: The Academy,What is History? — John Maass @ 11:54 pm


Historian Mary Beth Norton has an opinion column that was in the NYT and carried by a number of other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

As a historian, I love facts. I especially love facts about early America, the subject I have researched, taught and written about for more than 40 years. The Florida Legislature would seem to share my enthusiasm. An education law it recently enacted insists, “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed” and “shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable.” The statute places particular importance on the facts of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Second Continental Congress two days after its vote for independence on July 2, 1776. Yet the wording of the law befuddles me. Facts mean little or nothing without being interpreted — another word for “constructed.” All historians know that facts never speak for themselves.

Norton is right to question Florida’s law, in that most of history is what we have constructed, or at least, what some have constructed and others believe.  This is what the Whig interpretation of history was about for years.  Or how we set up conflicts and wars as set pieces, or presidential elections as being man vs. man, and not about issues, tensions, and movements.  One need read only To Rule the Waves, by Arthur Herman, to have an example of how a historian can distort huge historical events into “constructs” of one man vs. one man, or to overemphasize certain historical forces rather than examine and engage with the whole picture. 

Norton concludes that “Under the guise of returning to a factual teaching of history in the state’s schools, Florida’s legislators have mandated an ahistorical construction that paradoxically distorts the very facts they purport to revere.”  However, Matthew Franck takes Norton to task for her attack on Florida’s attempts to “get to the facts” approach in a National Review article.  He writes that “Norton actually proves the Floridians’ point, and proves herself quite silly, by working so hard to show that certain interpretations of American history are better or more reasonable or more true to the facts than others. Not that her interpretation is better. But in her clear conviction that an argument can persuade someone to adopt one “construction” of history as better or truer (or even just more useful) than another, Norton shows just the kind of respect for facts that too many of her colleagues have abandoned and that the Florida legislature is concerned to preserve.”  Leave it to the NR to keep its eyes on what the academy is doing, although this effort goes too far too often….

For other articles on the Florida issue with history teaching, click here and here.

June 29, 2006

Has Noah’s Ark Been Found?

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 6:15 pm

That is the question posed by an ABC News article, here.  A group of “Christian” archaeologists believe they may have located the remains of Noah’s Ark in Iran’s Elburz mountain range.  The Texas team is the Bible Archaeology Search and Exploration (B.A.S.E) Institute, a Christian archeology organization dedicated to looking for biblical artifacts.  (Does this mean they are predisposed to finding what they are looking/hoping for? 


Unfort., the article does not show photos (the one above is, sadly, an artist’s conception) so their claim is still not to be properly accredited, but then again not to be completely discounted either.  These claims have beem made in the past, but usually the ark is suppossed to be in th ehigh mountains of Turkey.  This is the first I have seen a claim that “the Boat” is in Iran, at 13,000 feet. 

“The Bible places the Ark in the mountains of Ararat, a mountain range theologians believe spans hundreds of miles, which the team says is consistent with their find in Iran,” reports ABC.

June 23, 2006

A tangled web….

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 1:16 pm

From the BBC: "Ancient web spins evolution story."  The article is about the fact that "The oldest-known spider web with prey still entrapped has been found preserved in a chunk of amber in Spain."  The 110-million-year-old spider web snared three of the four orders of flying insect, suggesting that the evolution of spiders and flying insects is inextricably linked.

The article is here.

June 20, 2006

Where’s the Beef?

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 6:41 pm

OK, that is an obvious pun for this story, in the Toronto Star, about the manipulation of the past to fit what is politically or socially needed for the present by powers that be.  This is a striking example, though.  The story is this:

References to the beef-eating past of ancient Hindus have been deleted from Indian school textbooks following a three-year campaign by Hindu hardliners. For almost a century, history books for primary and middle schools told how in ancient India, beef was considered a great delicacy among Hindus — especially among the highest caste — and how veal was offered to Hindu deities during special rituals.  The passages that offended the Hindus, who now shun beef, have been deleted from new versions of the books delivered to schoolchildren last week.

Every generation writes its own history, as its been said, and looks like in India it is true.

June 15, 2006

Hitler Museum in the U.S.

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 1:24 am


At HNN there is a brief piece on something I saw on CNN last night.  In Michigan, a former German soldier has created a Shrine to Adolf Hitler, and wants to open it to the public.  Its not so much of a memorial or a museum.  In fact I do not really know what it is.  The locals are concerned, as well they should be.  Seems like this has the potential to be a rallying point for Neo-Nazis, although it may have the salutory effect of luring them away from Antietam National Battlefield Park, where the recently took advantage of the 1st ammendment to be idiots.

I just found a longer piece, here.  It is from Der Spiegel, of all places.  The lead in to the story is this:

Crazy old coot or dangerous Holocaust denier? That's the question officials from Walworth County in the US state of Wisconsin are asking these days about 87-year-old Ted Junker. The retired farmer, who was born in Germany but grew up in Romania, says he wants to build a memorial to Nazi dictator Adolf Hilter on his land to clear up what he sees are historical inaccuracies about the most hated man of the 20th century.

The question remains–what exactly is it?  One county official is like me, not sure what to make of it. "I don't think it's a museum, but I don't think it's a storage shed, either," he said. 


NB: since writing the above, the "gentleman" Nazi has decided to hold off on his grand opening……..

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