Students: Some High Schools Teach History Well, Others Do Not

Published June 1, 2007

Some political science students say they have learned enough about American history in high school. Others, however, say they had to study outside high school or wait for college in order to learn about American history, in states without laws requiring study of the nation’s founding documents, like one currently under consideration in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve definitely acquired a knowledge of U.S. history primarily within the walls of my high schools and colleges … not from outside reading or research I’ve had to do independently,” said Erin Joyce, a 2006 Elmhurst College graduate who attended St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois. “American political thought classes have allowed me to read great American historical works, like the Federalist Papers, or books like [Alexis] de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.”

Joyce, now headed for graduate studies at University of Colorado, attributes some of that to individual school requirements. Michigan’s Hillsdale College, which Joyce attended her freshman year, is known as one of the nation’s most conservative.

“While at Hillsdale, one of my required [political science] courses allowed me to intensely study the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, so thoroughly that I ended up having much of them memorized by the completion of the class,” Joyce said.

Opinionated Teachers

But for every case like Joyce’s, others note, there are many others where high school teachers focus on less-important historical subjects in which they have more expertise or interest.

“I had a U.S. history teacher in high school who talked about how dumb George W. Bush was–and when I challenged him on it in class and asked where he got his information, he said it was common knowledge,” Bradley University junior Daena Stanek recalled.

Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois, allows students to fulfill the school’s Western Civics and Social Forces graduation requirements with classes such as “Race, Ethnicity, and Minority Relations,” “Gender and Society,” and “Marxism and Critical Perspectives.”

Unreliable Curricula

Stanek said she learned about the Constitution when she studied abroad in 2005.

“[General knowledge of] basic U.S. history is terrible unless you are a history major,” Stanek said. “Even in a history class, students do not read the great works of U.S. history.”

Many professors with whom she’s studied, Stanek said, incorrectly assume incoming freshmen know the basics.

Stanek shares Pennsylvania state Rep. Todd Rock’s (R-Franklin) concerns about the selective teaching of historical documents (see story this page), and she is somewhat cynical about public high schools’ current history curricula.

“History or political science classes are basically a teacher spinning the stories any way they want and telling them as fact,” Stanek said.

Other states, such as Illinois, have considered legislative proposals similar to Rock’s but have not yet made them state law. On the other hand, at press time New Jersey was considering legislation that would no longer require teachers to discuss the history of Columbus Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and other traditional holidays.

Fran Eaton