The Sad State of History Education

Clay wrote about updating how we teach history recently at


I’m tutoring a couple of Korean students home for the summer from their Oregon high school. Like many English language learners, they’re wonderfully bright, but challenged by the readability level of their assigned high school texts. And like many students generally, all their years of schooling in history have failed to equip them with any coherent understanding of the flow of history at all.

This I’ve confirmed with almost all students (not just English Language Learners) in high school classrooms over the years by doing this simple exercise: Scramble the major periods of history in a random cluster on the board or a handout – you know, “Medieval Period,” “Cold War,” “Roman Empire,” “Enlightenment,” “Age of Exploration,” “Classical Greece,” “Industrial Revolution,” “Greek Heroic Age/Trojan War,” “Renaissance,” “Sumer,” “Solomon Builds the Jewish Temple,” “Scientific Revolution,” “Alexander the Great,” “World War I and II,” “Mohammed and Islam,” “The Crusades,” “Egyptian Pharoahs,” “The Reformation,” “Buddha,” “The Romantic Era,” “The Catholic Church Begins,” “Confucius.” (We can quibble about this list, of course, but for now play along.)

Then tell the students: “Make a list in which you place these major historical events and periods in the correct chronological order. Then, write the approximate dates you think each one took place or began.”

Then wander the room monitoring the students’ progress. In almost all cases, depending on your personality, you’ll either laugh or weep. It’s not unusual to see the Industrial Revolution occurring before the Middle Ages, the Holocaust during the Enlightenment, and Columbus before Confucius. Stalin was a Renaissance Man. What a muddle.

Clay’s post (read the whole thing, it’s great) really got me thinking: what is wrong with history education these days?

I recall from numerous college history classes how little people know. Even obvious questions from the professors were usually met by silence. For a history nerd it was quite disheartening.

While it disappoints me that people can’t at least place eras in the right order, I’m sure we can all agree that memorizing dates is probably one of the worst approaches to history (Though I’ll never forget the Battle of Hastings October 1066).

What gets me most is the lack of understanding of the whys of history. Most people can’t explain the Civil War beyond stopping slavery, which really was not Lincoln’s aim at first. How many know more than “taxation without representation” as a cause of our Revolution, let alone who we fought? Don’t even get me started on all the fallacies and halve-truths taught to students as written in stone facts.

Why are we so afraid to get down in the dirt with history. That would be the best way to engage students. Of course now we be a good time to advocate discovery learning as well.