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SECONDARY EDUCATION & THE IMPORTANCE OF HISTORY
by Robert Donayre

paper written by a senior history major planning on starting a career in secondary education,
for a UC Santa Barbara English class, ca. Feb. 2001


Note by H. Marcuse, Dec. 2003: R. Donayre's book coverIncluded on this site both because it is an excellent essay, and because the student used an Oct. 2000 interview with me as one of his sources. Thus it gives an indication of my feelings about the importance of history education.
NOTE 2: the footnotes were not included in the file Robert gave to me.

Note July 2007: Robert has written an autobiographical account of his time in the US military and the Peace Corps: What It Means to Serve: From Airborne Ranger to Peace Corps Volunteer. For more information, see the publisher's website.


INTRODUCTION

At the secondary education level, students are taught a variety of subjects that are suppose to help guide them in their future career and personal choices. It is during these teenage years of moving into adulthood that young people often take on their most formidable views and perspectives about the world in which we live in. Because of this awesome transformation, the teaching of history as part of the high school curriculum is of overwhelming importance.

The field of history is important for many educational, as well as practical, reasons. Although the practical side of it may not be noticeable to the average high school student, it should be pointed out to him or her that every subject conceivable deals with history, and every inanimate object and every enjoyable pastime has a history behind it.

THE PRACTICAL SIDE OF HISTORY

Whether history deals with skateboarding, football, sex, or the Cold War, it helps us to understand where ideas and thoughts originate from, how they have developed over time, and where they are headed toward in the future. What should also be conveyed to a student is that their ‘positive’ actions in the present can help mold a bright future for themselves, as well as for the world around them. A student of medicine can’t become a doctor without studying the history behind the profession, and most legends of Hollywood have studied the history of acting and film before obtaining their star on Hollywood Blvd.

Regardless of whether or not a 17-year old will ever take another history course outside of high school, teaching history to that student will help him or her acquire the skills necessary to continue on with education at the college level. (Although a student at the University of California, and probably most colleges, must successfully complete a minimum number of formal history courses before graduating.) History will also make that student a better prepared citizen in society, capable of making informed choices about current issues and being able to follow up on events by using basic research techniques. Herbert I. London explains in his book, Social Science Theory, Structure, and Application, a "reason for studying American history is the mental training it affords its students. As a discipline it can develop analytical skills, give events space-time coordinates, and increase one’s ability to make decisions."1

THE STORY THAT HISTORY TELLS

An important source of information for the high school teacher is the university professor. After all, the professors teach those who teach. History, As Dr. Harold Marcuse of the University of California Santa Barbara explains, "gives students a sense of who they are and where they stand in their own society."2 In relation to American society, it is important for different groups of people--those of European dissent, African dissent, Asian, etc., women, and various socio-economic levels--to understand their history, where it is headed, and how they can contribute to a positive outcome. Also, as Dr. Marcuse mentions, it helps us, as an American people, understand "where we fit as a whole in relation with other countries."3 What is our role, if any, as a nation among nations and how did the United States become a Superpower?

When teaching such modern historical topics as the Cold War that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it should be taught in an objectionable way as possible, showing both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of both systems, without completely demonizing the Soviets while giving blind tribute to the American cause. This may be a difficult task, especially for a teacher of U.S. History lecturing to a room full of American students. Teachers should "stress the idea that you, too, have biases, tastes, etc., and that your view is not the only one and is subject to modification if challenged."4 History is rarely ever clear cut and thus should not be presented as a simple choice between ‘black and white.’

WHAT IS TO BE TAUGHT AND WHY?

With the teaching of history at the secondary level, it is important to focus on what should be taught. In an 18-week World History course for instance, it is impossible to teach all of what happened from the year 500 to the present. In many classrooms, teachers will often attempt to breakdown 1500 years of history over the course of the semester, which in this case, leaves a little more than a week for each century of instruction. This is considered an overview approach,where the teacher would briefly discuss important events of each century.

Another approach to teaching a world history course, as Dr. Marcuse emphasizes, is to pick a specific theme of world history, such as the rise and installment of various political institutions--who controls the strings--or what part technology has played in the past 1500 years.5 In this way, a teacher can cover the intended timeline, but by using a specific aspect of history. Regardless of whatever approach is used, the most important point in teaching history is that the instructor is "enthusiastic about what he or she teaches." Therefore a teacher should lecture on what area they are most knowledgeable and familiar with. In this sense, teachers are more likely to convey enthusiasm for history to their students, which will help "get them fired up."6

Patrick O'niell has taught U.S. History at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California, for some 20-plus years. He stresses the importance of focusing on big themes and concepts in the classroom, such as the Civil War, Expansionism, Imperialism, and both World Wars. These bigger themes help to explain "why we are who we are."7 Shorter topics, such as the creation of 4 continental time zones, can be left for a student to learn about themselves, if they choose to do so.

THE IMPORTANCE OF HISTORICAL CONTENT IN A HISTORY CLASS

Although teachers have a ‘free’ reign in the classroom, certain curricula, pre-determined by local and state-level education officials, guide their choices of what historical topics they will instruct. This may benefit or hinder a student’s learning of actual historical concepts and events. In his book, The Last Little Citadel: American High Schools Since 1940: Robert L. Hampel points out that during the 1970’s, "achievement scores in social studies... slipped during a decade when people worked hard to promote tolerance, celebrate pluralism, and encourage diversity."8 Most people in the field of education would argue that these issues are important for society at large, but if they are not taught in a historical context, than they are not relevant to the study of history.

In her article entitled, "Working Together to Strengthen History Teaching in Secondary Schools," published in the American Historical Association, Dr. Kathleen Anderson Steeves writes:9

Schools have been directed , often by local or state-mandated curricula, to "take on" many of the problems faced by the society at large. School curriculum specialists have often included such social issues as race relations, teenage violence, patriotism, civil rights, and the family in history or civic classes. The classes thus become "social problems" courses, leaving serious historical study behind to focus on current events and contemporary issues taken from the evening news or weekly magazines. Even then, background information that might have included historical knowledge on any of these topics is woefully lacking.

In the teaching of American history, emphasis on minority heroes should be in included as part of the curriculum, in order to "assist in closing the racial gap."10 Black Americans, depicted in the major motion picture Glory, helped keep the United States together by fighting in the Civil War on the Union side. The most decorated American fighting unit of the Second World War was the 442nd Regiment, composed entirely of Japanese-Americans who fought in Europe. Many minorities have become politicians, teachers, judges, and doctors, to name a few professions. By showing the prominent contributions of minorities upon American society, history will be taught in a way that may help students deal with race issues in present-day living.

TEACHERS KNOWING HISTORY

With the teaching of history, among other subjects, a number of problems often arise which affect the adequacy of instruction that students receive. One of these problems--a major one to boot--is the number of unqualified teachers in secondary education. With an ever expanding population in this country, more and more schools are becoming built, and therefore many more teachers are needed to fill these classrooms in an effort to meet societies demands on education. With a serious shortage of qualified teaching personnel, emergency credentials are often given to those newly graduated college students who have absolutely no teaching experience. Drastic times call for drastic measures, but these emergency steps may end up causing problems for both the students and the teachers.

Steeves points to a 1990 survey conducted by The National Center for History in the Schools that:11

... of 257 history teachers... 13 percent had never taken a college history course, and only 40 percent had a B.A. or M.A. in history. Without the information or training base with which to decide about what to teach, reliance on the text remains the primary source for course development and delivery,...

The more prepared and qualified a history teacher is, the easier it will be for him or her to convey historical information to their students. This will then help increase a student’s enthusiasm for the subject in general. An unqualified or less-educated instructor will have a harder time answering students’ questions, which may result in a student’s diminished respect for the teacher, as well as lessen a student’s interest in the topic at hand. And as Mr. Oniell says, "If everything was in the book, they wouldn’t need me."12

THE EVER DEVELOPING TEACHER

Many students and teachers of history "lack an understanding of the field’s complexity, often believing that all the answers have been determined."13 If the latter were true, then university professors would not attempt to find new research material in order to either support existing historical claims or overturn previously held notions that are considered to be standard viewpoints. History is constantly being developed and becoming ‘rediscovered.’ Therefore, its instructors should develop with it.

Throughout a history teacher’s 20 or 30-year career, one should attempt to increase his or her understanding and knowledge of the subject, not only for themselves, but for the benefit of their student’s as well. There are a number of ways that a history teacher can continuously become better. In the state of California, a few universities host special workshops for secondary level history and social science teachers.

At the California State University, Chico, the North State History-Social Science Project "serves K-12 students, teachers, schools, and school districts throughout the northern Sacramento valley" region.14 This is just one of the eleven current sites of the California History-Social Science Project. Such projects help promote "the development of curriculum based on the History-Social Science Standards."15 Every June, CSU Chico, holds a two-week institute that helps already established teachers of history and social studies improve on their teaching techniques, as well as establish professional contacts with other instructors. In a few rare cases, a small number of "pre-service student teachers" are permitted to attend the summer institute. All participants are awarded a $500 stipend and dormitory rooms are provided. Who says that teaching history doesn’t pay?!

In dealing with such programs for teachers, positive communication must take place between educators at all levels of schooling, including the secondary and university grades. This is of overwhelming importance for the teaching of history and should just not be confined to a two-week summer program. Although:16

Often direct experience is not possible... more information for university historians about secondary school teaching and an increasing recognition by both groups of their similarities could raise the number and, more important for the students, the effectiveness for secondary-school- university partnerships.

As in other professions, many history teachers are not concerned with bettering themselves in their field. Many are content with mediocrity and a descent paycheck at the end of the month. For those who wish to expand upon their knowledge and improve their teaching skills, teachers must do so on their own accord. They have to inquire about such summer institutes, as well as continuously read up on their designated subject.

Mr. O'Neill of Mar Vista High has the school administration there supply him with historical resources, such as magazines dealing with the U.S. Constitution.17 Unfortunately for many teachers in economically distraught school districts, their schools may not have enough money for ‘extra’ supplies, and thus these teachers are often faced with paying for resources out of their own pockets.

THE FUN AND THE ‘POWER’ OF HISTORY

While teaching history, an instructor should point out the benefits and the ‘power’ that comes along with this subject. Through historical study, one can pursue a career in a wide array of fields. A student of history can go on to law school or delve into politics, because they will possess knowledge that will help them make invaluable choices that affect society--hopefully anyway. And also, a student who continues on with historical studies can one day be given money for telling other people what they know, as well as for expressing their opinions. This meaning that they can become teachers.

History is also fun and can lead to many other great opportunities and experiences. The author of this paper, because of his love and passion for history while in high school, was able to go to on a week-long trip to the California state capital of Sacramento. California Boy’s State is a summer program that allows selected high school students from public and private institutions throughout the state to learn about the functions and workings of state government. At the time of my partaking in Boy’s State, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars covered the costs of the program, including transportation.

Although I was a poor student in other subjects, my success in the history discipline allowed me to be selected as a competing candidate among two other peers of mine from Mar Vista High School. Because of my enhanced knowledge of history, or so I thought at the time anyway, I was able to ‘survive’ the interview process, which had been conducted by two war veterans from the Second World War. During the interview process, I was able to slip in my limited knowledge of those war years, as well as the part my grandfather played in the invasion of the Japanese-held Islands of Saipan. They were impressed! I became my school representative to Boy’s State and I had a blast and made new friends. But I can’t really say that I made the most of the academic side of my time in Sacramento then. Well, I plan to make up for it during my time at Sacramento State University, where I will be getting my Master of Arts--oddly enough--in history.

ASSESSING A STUDENT’S HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE

In order to really understand history, it must be analyzed in a highly critical and analytical way. This meaning that a significant amount of reading and writing is important. And because the average high school student is not up to par as compared with the average college student of history, assessment at the secondary level must include a variety of different forms. These can include such test-taking methods as using multiple choice, short answer, and essay exams.

Many ignorant people will say that learning history involves only the memorization of significant dates from the past. While this is grossly untrue, it is important to memorize specific historical dates. Let’s take a look at the following example:

In a class on German history that I once took, a peer of mine gave an oral report on the First World War, in which she gave each student a corresponding handout. On the Handout, it stated that the United States did not declare war on Germany until August 1917, and in her presentation she said it was April. A student then asked her which was the correct month for US participation in the war. The presenter said that she didn’t know, but it wasn’t really important.

So was it April or August? And does it really matter which is the correct month? It was April, and yes, it does matter. The United States Congress declared war in April 1917, but American fighting troops did not arrive in Europe until August. This may seem of little consequence or may appear to be a trick question on a test. But let’s think about it for a second. If the United States declared war in August, then perhaps the American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing would not have arrived until December. By then the German forces may have been in a position to secure victory for themselves and their allies. Certainly the harsh winter season of central Europe in December would have had a different effect on the morale of the newly arriving Americans then did the warm skies of August.

Many teachers emphasize the knowledge of dates, but there tends to be room for leniency. Especially in dealing with much older history as ancient times, if a student’s knowledge of the date is in the ballpark--same decade or even century perhaps-- then they may get credit for their answer.

The other forms of assessment in a history class, short answer and essay, should be cultivated and developed. Most humanities courses in college use these primary forms of assessment only, or a majority of the time, and therefore it is the responsibility of the high school teacher, no matter in what curriculum, to help get his or her students ready for education beyond the high school level. Although full-length essay exams may be a little much for the average teen in high school, short in-class essays, as well as take-home essays should be included. Only through essays and short answer questions on a test, can a student demonstrate that they have an understanding of the subject at hand. And to prevent cheating, the teacher should stand at the back of the room, behind his or her students.

CONCLUSION

History, whether it is used for career purposes or for curiosity’s sake, it is important for people to have a basic understanding of what has driven, and what drives, the world in which we live in. To put it bluntly, as historians would proclaim, as well as many people in general, "If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything."

Works Cited

Hampel, Robert L., The Last Citadel: American High Schools since 1940. (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1986).

Herbst, Jurgen, The Once and Future School: Three Hundred and Fifty Years of American Secondary Education. (Routledge: New York, 1996).

London, Herbert I., Social Science Theory, Structure and Application. (New York University Press: New York, 1975).

Marcuse, Harold, "An interview with," (Santa Barbara, Oct. 25, 2000).

O'Neill, Patrick, "A telephone interview with," (Nov. 7, 2000).

Steeves, Kathleen Anderson, "Working Together to Strengthen History Teaching in Secondary Schools," American Historical Association. <http://www.historians.org/pubs/free/StrengtheningSecondaryTeaching.htm>[updated 8/25/05]

The North State History-Social Science Project (NSH-SSP). <http://www.csuchico.edu/hist/nshssp/hsspnet.html>


essay written by Robert Donayre, winter 2001; prepared for web by H. Marcuse, 12/17/03, update 7/15/07
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