Your experiences with history education in United States schools, K-12

This is a spinoff of this interesting thread on History Channel programming.

I’m going to mostly limit my contribution to high school classes as I just don’t remember much about history education prior to that. In later elementary school and middle school, it was all taught as “Social Studies” and the topic would change every few weeks. Prior to 7th grade, I remember we spent an inordinate amount of time studying all of the explorers and European settlement of North and South America, way before the time that Christopher Columbus became public enemy #1.

7th grade is a bit of a blur, but a lot of the year was spent studying Ohio history in preparation for a trip to the state capitol as well as various museums. 8th grade was similarly focused on US history and government, in preparation for a trip to Washington DC.

High school was 9th grade World Geography, taught by a teacher who was a world traveller and was an excellent class, it started a lifelong obsession with travel for me.

10th and 11th grades starts my problems with history education. My school made an attempt to tie English class and history class together. This resulted in us spending far too much time in certain historical eras so we could finish the study of an appropriate novel in English class.

10th grade was world history. So, we spent a lot of time on ancient Greece so we could read the Odyssey, a lot of time on Rome so we could cover Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then we raced ahead through the middle ages and the Renaissance, only pausing to watch the Beckett movie in English class, then we also raced through the Enlightenment and the Reformation in a hurry to get to the Industrial Revolution, where we read some depressing works I can’t remember from then, then onto World War I for All Quiet on the Western Front, then to World War II for the Diary of Anne Franka and finally ending in the Cold War for Alas, Babylon.

11th grade was American History with a similar pattern as above. The history we studied was directly related to the literature we read, so we dwelt far too long in early America to make sure The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible were covered.

12th grade was one semester of American Government and one semester of Economics.

There are a lot of problems with the way history was taught. My first problem is how it had to be tied to the works we studied in English class. My second problem is how history (and the other related social science classes) were the default class for everything else the school had to include. DARE, anti-drunk driving, anti-suicide, and other related lectures were always done during those classes. I can imagine it is worse now.

Anyway, to sum up this long OP, go ahead and post your experiences with history education prior to college. Even if you’re not in the USA, it will be interesting to hear your experiences with history education.

I took history in a California high school … we covered all those subjects that never get taught in history class:

Columbus was a jerk … check …
Native American genocide … check …
Abuse of Japanese-Americans during WWII … check …

About the only thing not covered in history was the clusterfuck of the Viet-Nam War … that was covered in the current events class …

Do you think you’re better off with that knowledge? Columbus isn’t worthy of worship but he’s not responsible for every problem since 1492. Andrew Jackson was a jerk and there’s a lot of bad things to be said about Andrew Jackson, but Native Americans weren’t all peace and love, either. Pocahontas was a fictional movie, not a documentary. FDR was a good president, but, yes, the treatment of Japanese-Americans was wrong. I’m not sure it needs extensive coverage in a broad overview of American history, just as I don’t think he’s a god for disabled people either.

The default for all that other stuff has been my kids’ homeroom, not Social Studies courses. There has been little cross disciplinary integration - Social Studies is Social Studies, English is English. Although both APUSH and English studied Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.

My kids got World Geography in 9th Grade
World History in 10th grade
American History in 11th
Econ and Poli Sci in 12th

For my daughter, she took them all as AP courses, and you can look up what they covered. Except Econ and Poli Sci - her Poli Sci is Constitutional Law taken at a local college, and next semester she has college level Micro. My son isn’t intellectually ambitious and stuck to the regular coursework - which covered the same stuff with less depth.

Here is 174 pages on what the AP US History exam covers:

The ability of the class to teach moral judgements (Columbus = bad) has far more to do with the teacher than the curriculum. The curriculum does teach consequences (Columbus brought disease to the New World, brought more Europeans who tried to enslave Native Americans, etc… )

I’m just curious since this was in California: did they mention that California was one of the main champions because their coastline was the Pacific Ocean. Even Earl Warren, the governor at the time, supported the camps. It doesn’t necessarily shock me you learned about them though since the camps themselves were in California.

On the OP: I always loved history up until the 8th grade where I had a teacher who didn’t seem to know the subject matter very well (US History) and also had an odd obsession with dates. To her, it didn’t matter if we knew why or how something happened as long as we knew exactly what year it occurred. For instance, if you knew that William conquered England in 1066 then in her mind, you knew everything you needed about the Norman Conquest. It was bizarre. I still did well in the class, but it definitely dampened my interest in history. 9th grade was World history and much better. I had a teacher who actually knew the subject extremely well. Only problem? She was incredibly dry. She never tried to pepper her lectures with anecdotes of people during the time we studies or anything like that. Still, much better than my 8th-grade teacher. After that, I was off to college and my love of history soon awakened.

The school board bought the approved History Textbook, it was passed out at the first of the year, and we got most of the way though it, memorizing as many details as we thought necessary to pass the exams, which were mostly multiple choice oir T/F…

My tenth grade world history class was taught by a gym coach who was also a hockey player for a city team and missing a couple of teeth. Supremely uninteresting and boring. My ninth grade ancient history class was taught by an extremely bored woman who would show any movie she could get her hands on in order not to have to teach the course. I remember nothing from that class.

Basically, history classes were a long litany of having to learn dates and events I didn’t care about, and, I found out later, was largely sanitized from what really happened. Hell, they didn’t even teach Alaska history, and that’s where I grew up.

Odd then, that I minored in history in college, and read a lot of history books now. Probably because it was finally taught in context and included things like cultural and geographic influence.

11th and 12th grades I took AP history, with a term of economics. Our text was “The Growth of the American Republic” by Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager. This book was so well written that my only problem was not getting too far ahead. We also watched a weekly lecture on NY Educational TV by a Columbia University professor, who was good except for occasionally picking his nose.

The best part about it was that after a month or so our teacher figured out that we were all smart enough to do the work, and so spent class on current affairs debates and interesting byways. I don’t think we ever got a test. And we all did just fine on the AP test.

When my daughter took AP history her textbook was awful - full of sidebars and pictures and simple sentences. And all chopped up to meet the standards. Before her AP test I got her a good book on US history - she read it and did fine also.
I enjoyed history so much I read lots of it now. So it was a success, I’d say.

I think the reliance on multiple choice (or true/false) questions has contributed to the routine rigidity of history classes. That might be a good format for math, but I don’t think it’s a good one for history. If you can pass a history test by memorizing a few facts then you’re not really learning history. History is too complicated to be boiled down to multiple choice questions and I suspect trying to do so is the reason high school history just seems like a long list of people, dates, and events. It’s easy to make multiple choice questions from those things. This, in turn, makes many students believe history is simply dry facts and not particularly useful. Making history tests short answer and essay questions would require students to understand the why and/or how behind the fact. The multiple choice format shears fact from context when the latter is the foundation for understanding and enjoying history.

What I remember from high school history:

Tippecanoe and Tyler too
54-40 or fight
Huerta (teacher made a taxi joke about his name, which somehow stirred me from my slumber)

I think that’s about it.

35 years old, went to public school in southern CA in the '90s.

Here’s what I recall the curriculum being;

K-2 - The basics; Columbus, the first Thanksgiving, Washington, Lincoln, MLK

3-4 - The history of California; Indians, the Spanish missions, the Gold Rush

5 - The Revolution, the Civil War, and Reconstruction

6 - Ancient history - Sumeria, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and the Roman Empire

7 - Non-western post-Roman era - Arabia and the rise of Islam, India, China, and Japan

8 - Ancient Rome and the Civil War, in-depth

9 - Pretty much the same as 7, in-depth

10 - Medieval and Renaissance Europe

11-12 - US history in-depth up to Watergate

A year or two after I graduated I read “A People’s History of the United States”, and I think I retain more from that than I did from school.

(Bolding mine)

Wow, that sounds like a nicely balanced curriculum. I think it’s common for schools nowadays to lump the things you learned in 9th and 10th grade together World History, which sometimes also covers the Romans and the Greeks. Personally, I think your curriculum is far superior.

This is true for the “get out with a high school diploma” Social Sciences classes. The idea is to give the kids a class that nearly everyone can pass - and that you can get a decent foundation to learn more if you are interested. And I think that is good. Not every kid is a good abstract thinker. Not every kid writes with confidence - and a lot of kids don’t want to get college degrees. My son ended up in the sheet metal program.

It is absolutely not true for AP coursework, where writing two decent essays is how you get enough points to get the 3 that is generally considered passing. Its not true for IB coursework, from what I understand either.

I happen to think its important to set students up for success in their future lives - to put kids going to college on a track where they write essays and develop abstract thought…and to let the kid who will end up in trade school doing a lot of welding not worry too much about the impact of American-Chinese relations in the 1970s.

I have no doubt about the AP classes going into more detail. They’re essentially college-level classes, correct? I don’t think only the advanced students should learn history that way. Even if a student possesses no interest in going to college. What do you think would serve someone better today: knowing who popularized the Southern Strategy or why the Southern Strategy was created in the first place? We can only prevent ourselves from repeating history if we know that history. I generally agree that schools should primarily focus on what the student’s strengths and goals are, but even if a student isn’t good at abstract thinking, I believe they would get far more out of the class than if they had to memorize a few facts, events, and/or reasons. It would at least make students view history through a different lens. I guess, history is one of the areas where I think students should learn history more abstractly, even if it’s one of their weaknesses. Math requires abstract thinking and its essential to understanding the subject, so we teach math that way regardless of the student because of its importance. Also, I believe there are studies showing people are more likely to remember facts rooted in a concept rather than if it’s just tethered to nothing but other facts. I will link to the studies later if I can find them.

*On a somewhat unrelated note, I once had to do a phone survey for a class and one of the questions was what the three branches of government were. Easy question, right? I was dumbfounded how many people got it wrong no matter their age group or political affiliation (note: a lot of people seem to be under the impression the House and the Senate are two different branches). The only apparent similarity between the people who got the question wrong was that most had only completed high school. Though there were a couple who got it wrong even though they had a college degree. Anyway, I thought the story might have some bearing on the discussion. That and, to this day, it still kind of shocks/scares me.

I went to a pretty terrible high school but the history classes weren’t bad at all for the age level. One thing that was different is that I am from Louisiana and they are all about teaching Louisiana history starting in 7th grade. You had to know every single Parish (county in other parts of the country) perfectly and be able to recite them in front of the class with a 100% score until you got them all right. You also had to know general Louisiana history until it was turtles all the way down. Texas uses a similar approach.

We also had U.S. History and World History in high school. My college history classes were WAY more difficult but I think my high school did a decent job of teaching the basics for the population in question. They really enjoyed teaching history and it rubbed off on almost everyone.

K-1: Our Community.
2: Native Americans (Which meant the First Thanksgiving.)
3: Native Americans (Slightly more detail about different tribes)
4: European explorers of the Western Hemisphere. (No criticism, just a lot of names to memorize.)
5: 13 Colonies and American Revolution (Coordinated with reading Johnny Tremain and My Brother Sam Is Dead)
6: U.S. Civil War (I got to dress up as Clara Barton and give a report, because I owned a sunbonnet.)
7-8: Geography, focusing on the U.S., and current events.
9: Nothing
10: Current events
11: U.S. History through WW II
12. U.S. History since WW II and U.S. Military History (an elective)

Note that I could have taken world history in grades 9 and 10, but didn’t. That’s on me. I wanted to take AP History but they didn’t offer it at my school. I still took the exam and got a 4. I took U.S. History in college, too. Grade 11 history was awesome.

This is a “you can lead a horse to water…” problem. If you have a room full of kids who don’t give a flying fuck, you can talk Southern Strategy all you want and it won’t do them any good. And if the stick you use is a test, then you have a lot of kids who fail high school.

Give them the foundations that they need to move forward. Don’t hold them back because when they are fifteen years old, they don’t see History as important.

(Bolding mine)

That’s precisely my problem. I don’t think they’re giving them the foundations. They’re just forcing them to memorize dates/people/events that they will soon forget (especially because most of the tests are multiple choice).

I think they don’t give a fig because of the way it’s taught. I think kids (or at least more of them than otherwise) would be more interested if they were told why the Southern Strategy occurred and how we’re still seeing its consequences today than they would if they were just told that it’s what allowed Nixon to win the Presidency in '68.

I was taught that way back in the dark ages (my school didn’t have college prep History and was a very blue collar school), and I have a History minor and am pretty good at it and am pretty interested. I got the foundations. Many of the people I know my age got the foundations that way.

And if you aren’t interested, it really doesn’t matter. One of my daughter’s classmates took AP US History and didn’t think she needed to know who King George was since “the U.S. doesn’t have kings.” If she develops the intellectual curiosity in her life to find out more, she will - but no one can give it to her.

In high school neither my American nor World History seemed to get past WWII. End of year happened and besides that is all recent events anyway - to the teachers maybe but not us in the mid 70’s. I recall my Am History teacher as being old enough to have lived through a lot of it. A fellow student’s grandpa was in her first class.