Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Don't Know Much About History (and other subjects)

The freshly returned Polski3 wrote a post in which he questioned the lack of emphasis on anything but reading and math when it comes to NCLB. With the law due for reauthorization next year, he wonders if Congress should consider adding things like history and the sciences to the law's mandate.
I see two possible paths; the one we are currently experiencing in which history is de-emphasized to the point where it may someday be extinct from most schools, or that testing in history (and science, humanities and arts) is added to the requirements of NCLB, which in a future form, works to try to ensure no child is left behind from being a well educated, functioning, employable, politically enlightened, thinking member of our society.
While I can understand the emphasis on reading and math, and I understand the need to begin somewhere with a focus on short term start-up of programs, it would seem to me that the "blinders-on" focus on reading and math will shortchange our children in the long run, particularly as the move from elementary to middle to high school.

If you were to look up the texts that are used in teaching reading to upper elementary school kids, say fourth and fifth grades, you will likely find nothing but fiction/literature on the list. What I have never understood is why reading skills have to focus solely on literature? Reading skills for literature differ greatly from those for science, history, the arts or math. Yet by focusing solely on fiction, we forget about these other skills.

But the skills are not the only problem. Polski noted that while he was in college, everyone was required to take and pass a U.S. history course and a few other courses. Today, and even 10 years ago when I was at the University of Maryland, this is no longer the case. But the failure to emphasize history and other subjects in NCLB may lead to a more long term problem, one even greater than the concern that Polski expresses, that the education of children will be incomplete.

The problem that incompleteness brings is that education used to be a great unifier in this country. No matter what you background was, immigrant or native born, from the cities or in rural America, most schools taught the same general material, at the same general time. Students then learned a common cultural reference. Note that I am not suggesting that the students were indoctrinated in a common culture, although that may very well have been a by-product. All students, regardless of background had a common understanding of certain subjects, history, the sciences, literature and art, that allowed for the disparate segments of society to share a common foundation of knowledge. In this way, education, a good-solid, liberal arts education, allowed for a nation to be forged from disparate peoples.

The problem with a laser focus on reading and math only is that subject that provided a common understanding, history, social sciences, civics, even the arts, get left by the way side, further adding to the fragmentation of society. Our society, despite all its commonalities is on the verge of being too fragmented in its current state. How can we be expected to survive when the future generations don't know how to talk to each other, let alone talk across generational lines.

Polski right to be concerned about the lack of an educated, functioning, politically engaged generation currently in school. But the impact is much, much worse. I am not of the belief that we are necessarily at that point in historical development, or even close, but we need to get beyond just reading literature and basic math. Let us look to expanding our kids minds in other subjects, even as we teach them reading.

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