Joanne Jacobs, whose blog I’m reading for the first but not last time tonight, has a great post on boring history texts. She quotes a Fordham Institute reviewer as saying:
The books reviewed in this report range from serviceable to abysmal. None is distinguished or even very good. The best are merely adequate. In the hands of a competent teacher, they could get the job done, but not much more than that. No textbook scored better than 78 percent overall—the rough equivalent of a C+ grade. Five of the twelve earned failing marks. Despite their glitzy graphics and vivid pictures, they all suffer from dull prose and the absence of a “story.” Is it any wonder that most students rank history or social studies among their least favorite subjects in school? What a crashing bore it must be to try to learn something from tomes like these.
I’m so glad that someone noticed. I didn’t realize until past college that history was more than interesting–crucial, at the root of who we are and where we are right now. I’ve sometimes speculated that it’s a conspiracy to keep history boring, so that students will run from it, as I did, and not understand a lot of what’s important in life.
I don’t actually believe conspiracy theories, even my own pet ones, but it would explain a lot. (It’s out there, and it’s an interesting theory, and so maybe the educational establishment should prove it’s not true.)
Jacobs seems to support the idea that teachers should choose their own texts. That would probably help, assuming that the teachers are competent (as the vast majority are). Another thing that would help is using, as much as possible, contemporary witnesses to events and historians writing on specific topics, then integrating various studies around a time period. Thus students might spend a year studying the 18th century. They get the American and French revolutions, Voltaire, Mozart, the Enlightenment. In the 19th century, they get the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the French occupation of Mexico, the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, Dickens, Lincoln. A unified curriculum helps students see that music, philosophy, art, government, war, literature and commerce don’t happen in a vacuum, but play off each other, affect events in the others’ spheres. It’s not as important that they know that the Civil War began on such and such a date as that it landed at the middle of the 19th century amid all these other developments and movements.
Thanks to Walloworld for the referral.