In a 2004 Gallup Youth Survey, it was found that out of polled students aged 13-17, only 7% of them found history/social studies to be their favorite subject. This number pales in comparison to students who chose math, at 23%. While this data is almost two decades old, it is clear that history is still far from leading the pack. As a future history teacher, I want to find some of the reasons students don’t gravitate toward the subject. With the help of an Instagram poll, I talked to over 40 of my peers about why they found high school history to be a negative experience.
Some issues were frequently raised with the common approach to teaching history. Among the most common issues posed by my peers were repetitive topics, required memorization, excessive lecturing and the lack of a middle-ground in academic difficulty.
On the subject of repetitive topics, this should be an easy fix. History has been recorded for over five millennia, so there’s definitely no lack of content. Unfortunately, repeating lessons on U.S.-centric topics while excluding other perspectives is a massive culprit here. A quick look at the College Board’s 2018 report on the number of schools offering each AP exam shows a huge disparity: while 13,441 schools in the U.S. offered AP U.S. History, only 7,491 offered AP World History.
Memorization in education needs to become a thing of the past. A 2013 article in the Atlantic by Ben Orlin, “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning,” illustrates why this is: “What separates memorization from learning is a sense of meaning. When you memorize a fact, it’s arbitrary, interchangeable — it makes no difference to you whether the sine of π/2 is one, zero or a million. But when you learn a fact, it’s bound to others by a web of logic. It could be no other way.” While Orlin is referring to math in his example, this equally applies to history. While students generally despise the task of memorizing isolated facts to be regurgitated later, it does not even help them learn. Long gone are the days when young adults had to prove their intellect by reciting long passages from classical works. We do not live in Ancient Rome, we live in a society where the same isolated facts that once needed to be recalled from memory can now be found on the internet with a few taps.
Excessive lecturing fits into a similar category as memorization. If the goal of history teachers is solely to give their students facts for tests, lecturing works perfectly fine. However, alongside the monotony of that sort of classroom environment, this should not be the goal of history education. The aim of history education should be to give each student the tools of historical understanding so that they can come to their own conclusions about the world, and not only its past, but also its present and future. Diversifying how lessons are taught can not only dispel the constant lecturing, but it can also make history more approachable to students who learn better with different modalities. The difficulty of each class can also make a difference. If a class is too easy, students will probably tend to take it less seriously and prioritize other classes. Having all the students coast through might mean they like the class. But if they don’t learn anything, there’s no reason to have the class in the first place. On the flip side, having a class that’s impossibly hard will cause resentment for history, which is also definitely not the goal.
Actual content of the class was another major concern from the peers I talked to. The history that is taught in America, no matter what grade, has a serious problem with the erasure of marginalized identities. The aforementioned report showing almost twice as many schools offering AP U.S. History compared to AP World History is unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg. Within the scope of just U.S. history, many topics get glossed over, or are often not even included. Whether it’s a unit about the Civil Rights movement that selectively edits out parts that don’t fit the American narrative, the lackluster coverage given to LGBTQIA+ Americans, the downplaying of the U.S.’ faults abroad or any other of the myriad of topics and whether they are covered incorrectly — all of these have an impact on how history classes are perceived. The goals of history educators should not include protecting the comfort of white heterosexual males, but when this end is pursued, it actively makes people who do not fit into that group uncomfortable in the class.
There are a lot of reasons one might not respond favorably to history education, but to be optimistic, many of these problems are fixable. Just as history itself is always being added to, how the discipline is approached should be too. An environment where history education is accessible to all, representative of all perspectives and focused on giving students the historical tools that will allow them to truly engage in the field, is ideal, and very attainable with the right amount of effort and care.