Why so many students hate history — and what to do about it

Historians in the News
tags: education, history crisis



Back in 1982, a survey was taken of sixth and 12th-graders in a Midwest school district to determine how the students felt about social studies.  The results: The kids were “largely indifferent” or revealed “negative attitudes” toward social studies. If you listen to students and teachers, not much has changed since: A lot of kids in K-12 schools find history class boring.

What’s more, the number of college history majors has been declining; the Los Angeles Times reported:

Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, the history major has lost significant market share in academia, declining from 2.2% of all undergraduate degrees to 1.7%. The graduating class of 2014, the most recent for which there are national data, included 9% fewer history majors than the previous year’s cohort, compounding a 2.8% decrease the year before that. The drop is most pronounced at large research universities and prestigious liberal arts colleges.


Some college history departments now take pains to woo students, explaining that there is employment for history majors after they graduate. Boston University, for example, has a page on its website that says “So, you think you want to study history? But you’re worried it might not be the right choice.” It then goes on to dispels myths “that make some nervous about majoring or minoring in history” and says history majors do, in fact, get good jobs:

Myth No. 1: History is boring.


Maybe you had awkward experiences in high school. You assume history is going to be all names and dates and “one damned thing after another,” as the saying goes. Maybe, like Virginia Woolf, you’ve concluded that history is too much about old men and their wars or that it is “more or less bunk,” as Henry Ford proclaimed. (Then again, Ford also called physical exercise bunk, so he might not be the best authority.)


But wait … it’s not like that.


College history is not designed around state-mandated textbooks or standardized tests … Historical knowledge is powerful currency for the 21st century.  History increases cultural literacy and sensitivity. You will learn to consider multiple points of view and changing global contexts. And you will get more jokes. It also offers a unique education in the curation of content, teaching you how to collect, evaluate, and arrange a variety of sources into persuasive arguments and narratives. By interpreting the past you will better understand yourself. And those who know their history help to shape how people see themselves in the present and what they hope for the future.


All of this brings us to a new book titled “Rebooting Social Studies: Strategies for Reimagining History Classes,” by Greg Milo, who taught high school social studies for 13 years and who currently works with Global Ties Akron and the Knight Foundation, organizing community events so that people of different backgrounds can learn more about their own community together. He is also a member of Akron Promise, a nonprofit that works to increase educational opportunities for all students.

This is an excerpt from the book:

“I wish I could take a history class now. I hated it when I was young,” said the parent to the teacher.


Do you ever encounter such sadness?


What did they hate about the class? They’ll usually say, “It was boring.”


“What did you find boring about it?”


They all say something like, “We just had to memorize facts about dead people.”


It’s hard to argue with that answer. It’s a struggle to even memorize the names of the students at the start of each year. Heck, passwords are hard to memorize, and those are used daily.


Memorizing names or dates or anything isn’t very motivating for most people.


“Class, what year did Benjamin Franklin run away from his brother James?”


“In what year did Nikita Khrushchev slam his shoe while giving a speech at the U. N.?”


“Here, class, memorize the dates of the Thirty Years War.”


Whoa, riveting.


Not to mention, that much of what we ask our students to memorize is all very bland — breadth without the depth. Can you imagine if “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” was followed by two hours of generalized paragraphs that glossed over the excitement? ...





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