There are many, many challenges to the successful teaching of American history in 21st-century America. Especially for K-12 educators, this has been a particularly turbulent pedagogical era. Besides the usual suspects of complaints (such as about increasing pressures to “teach to the test” in this era of No Child Left Behind), there are particularly dangerous traps for history and social studies educators.
First, there has been an immense (and still developing) controversy over the Common Core State Standards. These standards are ostensibly only about reading and math, but they affect every subject teacher, especially in social studies, because they have a tendency to crowd out time spent on traditional disciplinary techniques. However, there is also something about the Common Core that all history teachers should be able to embrace. The idea of “close reading,” which is central to the Common Core, has the potential to unlock one of the more elusive tactics of good history. All historians read documents and other types of evidence closely, and though perhaps not exactly in the protocol of the original Common Core directives (by adhering to the “four corners” of the text), there is still something intriguing for historians about a set of educational standards that seriously promotes higher level reading comprehension. In Fall 2014, students in the Digital Humanities seminar explored this concept of “close reading” using a set of videos and documents from the House Divided Project.
Second, there has been an explosion of controversy lately over revisions to the AP US History (APUSH) framework. This issue seems utterly –perhaps hopelessly– politicized. It’s about many things, but mostly about whether or not advanced US history courses at the secondary level should experiment with introducing new historical figures and historical thinking topics into the traditional national narrative. Critics fear an approach mired in political correctness –one that almost vilifies the American past. Advocates worry about what seems like a new wave of historical fundamentalism, one that treats US history more as religious doctrine than a subject for intellectual inquiry. The battle has been fierce. Students in History 117 have already addressed this argument earlier in the Fall 2015 semester.
Regardless of any future career choice, senior history majors need to be aware of both of these particular challenges and should start contemplating where they stand in these fast-evolving debates.