The Most Important Graph in the World

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A great example of a question useful for teaching history

This image depicts the Territorial acquisition...Image via WikipediaContinuing from yesterday, here's an example of the kind of question that we need to be leading with when we ask kids to "learn history:"

1) ARE states permitted to require voters to have identification and show it to poll workers?
2) SHOULD they?
3) Why might that be a good idea? Or a bad one?
4) What might be the unintended (or unstated, intended) consequences of doing so?
5) Is there any need to do so?

This single question could be the focus of a year long inquiry that might well travel under the title "History," "Civics," or "Social Studies," take your pick.
  • Another: Was the American Civil War about slavery or not? If so, which side won?

  • Another: Should Obama be impeached for refusing to prosecute or continuing to engage in torture, unconstitutional imprisonments, and unconstitutional warmaking?

  • Or "Does the absence of conscription make it too easy for politicians to wage war?"

  • Or "Gun control neither reduces crime nor makes the populace safer. True or false."
There are many others one could come up with. The point is that if you start with an important question and have a skilled student of history guiding things, history is the natural vehicle for teaching reading and critical thinking. And a really skilled guide will even introduce a lot of quantitative analysis into the mix, helping kids understand why they might want to be able to reason from data.

In schools, we go about it all wrong -- we presume that if we drag kids through "the curriculum" (the agreed-upon, inoffensive, politically correct cartoons about history that make it through the smoothing process designed to ensure that no one, anywhere, is ever offended) enough, they'll be able to engage questions like this, using evidence and analogies to history. Of course, what actually tends to happen instead is that most American students turn into Americans adults, people who are frighteningly ignorant about their own history, and (to within a tiny fraction of one percent) 100% ignorant of any other history save that which makes for good viewing on the History Channel.

If reproduction had to be taught and we taught reproduction the way we teach history, I'd fear for our ability to maintain our own numbers -- we'd have a nation far more interested in watching it on video than in participating.
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