History, civics and balancing ‘STEM’

September marked 50 years since the terrorist firebombing of a Birmingham church killed four girls. Summer saw the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. November marks 75 years since Kristallnacht and 50 since President Kennedy’s assassination; December, 100 years of the Federal Reserve.

Studying history, we can recognize context, sharpen thinking and learn humility. We can inspire and caution young people. History can contribute to citizenship, to reading and writing skills.

A Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences in June published “The Heart of the Matter,” identifying goals, including “to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding … to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.” Further, “These goals cannot be achieved by science alone.”

The Common Core State Standards are intended to bolster K-12 curricula and limit crude test preparation. Suggested texts include Washington’s “Farewell Address,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The need for enhanced study of history and civics is apparent from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. U.S. history data from 2010 show that 69 percent of 8th graders demonstrated at least a basic understanding of U.S. history; 45 percent of 12th graders did. About one-quarter of students have proficient civic knowledge.

Naturalized U.S. citizenship requires a civics test. It could challenge lifelong Americans, an American Civic Literacy Report indicates.

History can reinforce reading, writing and reasoned argumentation. The National Writing Board is affiliated with the Concord Review, which publishes papers by high school students of history. “Reading Like a Historian” is a Stanford University program with teachers to heighten students’ attention to sources, context, corroboration and close reading. “Choices” is a Brown University effort to frame current and historical issues. UConn, for example, combines teacher training with concentration in arts and sciences. Some schools use “Facing History and Ourselves.”

Tufts University hosts the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The Center for Civic Education offers a “60-second civics” podcast/quiz. Founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics features educational games. Harvard University’s Meira Levinson wrote the book “No Citizen Left Behind” to close a “civic empowerment gap.” She advances “action civics,” with a national collaborative envisioning “Generation Citizen” via student political participation.

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute — originally the History Education Project, which joined Yale historians with New Haven teachers and is now part of an interdisciplinary National Initiative -– offers seminars led by Yale faculty in response to public school teachers’ requests. Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center sponsors the regional competition for National History Day. At one New Haven public school, student projects ranged from Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin to Sputnik, which impelled the U.S. to strengthen math and science education.

Done well, the study of history provides a framework for exploration and analysis, for pondering contingencies of the present and past. Primary sources can enliven instruction. Maps, diaries, wills, letters and photo archives can promote direct discovery.

Deeper Learning, “STEM” to “STEAM”

Across disciplines, there are calls for “deeper learning.” Common Core standards — depending on their implementation — hold the promise of helping to reach a rigorous balance between STEM and other subjects. An alternative abbreviation — STEAM, adding “art” to the sciences, technology, engineering and math — reflects this search for balance. (We also need to balance high standards for curricula and learning expectations with a respectful approach to professional teachers.)

Yet the House Appropriations Committee proposed halving the National Endowment for the Arts and Endowment for the Humanities. At some $300 million combined, the endowments represent one hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.

John Adams wrote: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” His biographer David McCullough, in his 2003 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, said, “History teaches that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman, that we are all shaped by the influences of others.”

History remains important to a liberal education, which people worldwide often emulate or seek in the U.S. We should not take this system or our country for granted.

As in the Sputnik era, we do need to improve U.S. math and science education. Still, as a recent international study of those aged 16-65 reveals, Americans lag not only in numeracy and problem-solving, but in literacy.

“The Heart of the Matter” imagines “Citizens … educated in the broadest possible sense … [to] participate in their own governance and engage with the world.” Adequate preparation in the humanities, including history, can help.

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