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Sam Wineburg, 53, is a professor of education and history at Stanford University and director of the Stanford History Education Group. A former high school history teacher and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Wineburg is a critic of how American schools teach history and how we test students to evaluate what they’ve learned.

Do today’s students know less about our history than previous generations?

Absolutely not. Back in 1917, in the first large-scale test of historical learning, Texas high school students got only 33 percent of the questions right. They recognized 1492 but not 1776. They identified Thomas Jefferson but often confused him with Jefferson Davis. And tests showed similar results in 1943 and 1976. So there’s something profoundly problematic with the finger-waggers who say that kids today are dumb as rocks. Our students today are no stupider than their grandparents.

What should we conclude about that?

You should conclude that sitting 17- year-olds behind a desk and giving them decontextualized test questions, where one is about the Spanish Armada and the next is the Battle of Yorktown and then you skip to Hammurabi’s Code—there is something about that format that is extremely taxing on human memory.

Why did you write: “Kids look dumb on history tests because the system conspires to make them look dumb”?

The tests are designed so that the results will conform to a bell curve. They’re looking for questions that a bunch of people will get wrong and a bunch of people will get right. So questions that most people get right are eliminated. If you ask who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, and 98 percent of the students knew it was Martin Luther King, that question is eliminated because it doesn’t create a disparity. So in that sense the test is rigged.

When historians trained at Harvard and Stanford were asked questions from a high school history text, they got only 35 percent right. Why?

The questions were about the American Revolution—Fort Ticonderoga, the Olive Branch Petition, George Grenville. Professors of American history know that stuff, but specialists in the history of Japan and specialists in the Portuguese colonization of Brazil did no better than high school students. This raises the question: If historians can’t remember these things, why do we require 18- year-olds to know them? These tests stress small bits of information that are impossible to remember in the long term. Historians know something deeper. They know how to evaluate historical documents, how to look at conflicting sources and come to a reasoned judgment—in other words, how to be a citizen in a cacophonous democracy. That is the value-added of studying history and that is what we give short shrift to in our high school history classes.

Is something wrong with the way we teach history?

Most Americans think so. In 1994, a survey asked 1,500 adults to pick a word or phrase to describe their high school history classes and the word most frequently chosen was “boring.” Why do people detest high school history classes but are avid readers of your magazine and avid watchers of the History channel and go in throngs to watch historical movies? How do you explain that?

How do you explain it?

We’ve robbed history of stories. Humans are story-telling beings. Go back to the etymology of the word history—story. But we’ve stopped telling stories in the classroom. Instead, we treat students as small containers into which we pour content. Look at today’s history textbooks— they’re over 1,000 pages long. How can teachers possibly tell stories when they’ve got to cover a curriculum that goes from the Mayflower to the moon? You can’t tarry to tell a story. Teachers spend a day on the Progressive movement, a day on the Depression, a day on World War II and 20 minutes on Vietnam. That may cover the curriculum, but “covering” doesn’t mean students are learning. And our tests provide evidence of that fact.

Do schools need tougher standards?

People who advocate standards of “cultural literacy” are absolutely correct: There are things that students need to know. But if you look at state standards for history, you will find questions that no state legislator could answer. We have this macho game of “Whose standards are bigger?” And the test results come back and, once again, we don’t get the results we want. Maybe if we were to think about teaching ways of historical understanding that invoke students’ abilities not to recall a date out of the middle of nowhere but to form a historical narrative, then we might get different results.

How should we change the way we teach history?

We have to triage. We have to decide those things that we really think are important to teach and focus on them, which means that a textbook not be 1,400 pages but something more manageable—250 or 300 pages. And then we could ennoble students by exposing them to the kind of rich, powerful historical narratives that we read as adults—books by historians like David McCullough or Jill Lepore or Eric Foner.

Would students have time for anything else after reading a 600-page biography?

How about 130 pages of that book? Or instead of a chapter in the textbook on the Panama Canal, you read a couple chapters from McCullough’s book on the canal? Expose the students to historians who write well. How can you develop any kind of love of history or understanding of the narrative arc of history when the last narrative history book you read was a biography of Harriet Tubman in the fourth grade?

How would you change history testing?

I’d do away with multiple choice tests tomorrow. They’re an antiquated tool that fit a factory model of schooling where we had to quickly evaluate a student’s ability to recall information. Today, every student has access to computers. If they need to find out who John Burgoyne was, they can Google him. The knowledge-based economy doesn’t require students to be walking encyclopedias who can recall a piece of information. It requires the ability to sort through conflicting information and come to a reasoned conclusion. We need tests that help us do that. The Advanced Placement test has document-based questions that I think are an excellent means of assessment. They give students 10 to 12 original documents and require them to write an essay.

Is teaching history tougher because Americans argue about their history?

Yes, but that’s a good thing in a democracy. We’re not the Soviet Union, and we’re not Japan, where they claim it’s confusing to expose students to multiple interpretations of an event. Benjamin Franklin wrote about history’s role in cultivating citizens who are able to think for themselves. So the notion that there are multiple interpretations of every story and we can argue about them in a civil way is a positive American virtue. We should invite kids to debate these things.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here