Declaring Our Independence from Ineffective History Instruction

Two hundred and forty four years ago, our nation first celebrated its independence. Had July 4, 1776 happened in our current environment, we likely would have watched Paul Revere’s ride via a Facebook Live video. Thomas Jefferson would have offered up the Declaration of Independence through a YouTube post. And Alexander Hamilton would have issued a call to arms to his colonial brothers and sisters on TikTok.

What we see as history should adapt to the time and mediums in which it occurs and also in which it is taught.

While George Washington and John Adams delivered their State of the Union addresses orally to the U.S. Congress, Thomas Jefferson changed the protocol and simply submitted a written address. That tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Harry Truman’s 1947 SOTU was the first to be broadcast on television. Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address was the first to be broadcast during prime time, and 1966 was the first opportunity for the opposition party to also be granted a prime time slot.

FDR was known for his fireside chats, bringing the radio to presidential history. JFK introduced the nation to televised press conferences. And Donald Trump will go down in history as our first “Twitter” president. All adapted to the mediums that were most popular with the people at the time.

Despite all of these changes in how U.S. presidents have told their stories, how we teach history has largely remained the same as it was when public education was optional and provided in little red school houses. American history is taught through dusty textbooks. We still spend the first semester teaching about the American Revolution, and teaching it primarily through the lens of the white, male landowner. The winter and early spring are a lesson in the Civil War, taught through that same lens. Then after state testing, classes do a quick run from Reconstruction through modern times.

So we should not be surprised when those lessons don’t stick with today’s learners. Last year, I led a national research effort that explored what the average American knew about American history. Using multiple-choice questions from the practice tests for the U.S. citizenship exam, we surveyed 41,000 people nationally. We found that fewer than four in 10 could pass the test (meaning getting at least 12 of 20 questions correct). Passage rates were even lower for women and for people of color. And for those under the age of 50, only one in four could demonstrate a basic understanding of historical facts.

Late last year, I followed that history test with a national poll of American high school students about their attitudes towards American history. The results were disappointing, but not surprising. The average high school student found the learning of American history both boring and irrelevant. Historical knowledge played little value in their plans for college or for life.

Of course, learning American history isn’t about passing a multiple-choice test or doing well during a trivia night. Recent events have demonstrated how important it is for all of us to know our history – no matter how complex, confusing, or ugly it may be – and to think like historians. It is about asking tough questions and analyzing even tougher responses. It’s about beginning to understand what figures and moments and movements in American history we aren’t learning in class and asking why not and exploring what else hasn’t been taught. It’s about learning to think critically and focus less on just what happened and more on why things happened and the impact it had.

It’s about teaching a different type of history in a different way.

That’s why I am proud to officially announce the launch of the Driving Force Institute, a startup non-profit organization committed to transforming the teaching and learning of American history. This important work is based on a few key principles. First, video is the most powerful medium for teaching history to young people today, particularly video that is modeled after the YouTube videos learners are watching in their leisure time. Second, it is about making history more interesting and provocative for today’s learners. And finally, it is focused on telling our full history, with a particular emphasis on those important historical figures and moments that have been neglected for too long in our public school classrooms.

To launch this important work, DFI has collaborated with XQ Schools and its Rethink Together Forum to explore some of these important historical questions. We begin the month looking at the significance of the year 1619. Each week in July, XQ will share new DFI videos on the forum, exploring a range of issues important to today’s discussions of civic engagement.

I’m also proud to formally unveil “Untold,” a project of DFI produced and distributed by Makematic in collaboration with the USC Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education. We will provide an open-source collection of short, compelling history videos and animations designed to start new conversations shining a light on the stories that don’t always make it into the classroom and questioning what we think we know about those that do.

As the son of an historian, I was raised to appreciate the importance of history and to constantly ask questions about what happened and why. As the father of a teenage son whose lack of interest in history can be tracked to how poorly it has been taught in the classroom, I’m committed to seeking solutions to make history more interesting and relevant to young people today. And as an education advocate and agitator, I’m committed to breaking the learning models that have failed too many students for too long.

“Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Our collective lack of American history knowledge is indeed a problem. Hopefully, the Driving Force Institute is a solution for improving the teaching and learning of history.

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