It has been a banner week for other disciplines lecturing the humanities on their failings. First, as Erin wrote about yesterday, Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, suggested that historians and history teachers should adopt more active learning strategies. (Thanks, hadn’t thought of that one.) Then, Gary Saul Morson, a professor at Northwestern University, and Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern, argued that humanities teachers and professors should try teaching empathy and broadening students’ perspectives. (Again, what an original thought.) The decline in humanities majors, they stressed, is because the humanities only chase a superficial level of knowledge, reducing “Great Literature” to basic facts and plot summaries.
There are many, many problems with these think-pieces. The biggest is the intellectual arrogance that comes from assuming that historians and history teachers haven’t been using these strategies for years. Historians and history teachers already are teaching their students historical empathy and pushing beyond simple skills like memorization and recitation. The only reason Wieman, Morson and Schapiro think these are new ideas is because they haven’t bothered to look for them.
I spent last week at the Tampa Convention Center, sitting a table surrounded by eight other people, grading the U.S. history exam. Seven people at my table (including the table leader) were high school teachers. On the morning of the first day, our table leader quickly and effectively led us through the grading rubric for the long essay question about the impact of the Market Revolution on women’s lives. During our training, we graded practice essays, had lively conversations about evidence, historical thinking, and whether the students supported their theses. The intellectual atmosphere reminded me of graduate seminars or deconstructing a paper with a student in office hours. My high school colleagues had a strong grasp of the AP content and teaching their students to maximize their score and by extension, their critical thinking skills. They quickly identified examples of good and bad theses, good and bad uses of evidence, and whether students had effectively demonstrated change over time.
As I’ve been reading these articles on education practices in the humanities, it struck me that the problem is not that historians and history teachers aren’t engaging in active learning or teaching deeper critical thinking skills. They are. The problem is that Wieman, Schapiro, and Morson, rely on straw-man arguments rather than actual evidence. Morson and Schapiro claim that humanities professors blame the students for the decline in the humanities:
But humanities professors themselves, like a delicatessen owner selling spoiled meat and blaming business failure on the vulgarization of consumer taste, fault their students. ‘All they care about is money,’ they complain. ‘Twitter has reduced their attention span to that of a pithed frog.’
They cite no further evidence for this claim. In fact, Morson and Schapiro cite no data at all for any of their arguments in their essay. Perhaps they saved the evidence for their book (available for $29.95 from Princeton University Press). As Erin pointed out yesterday, there are plenty of easily accessible examples of historians engaging in precisely these kinds of active learning practices.
Over the course of the week at AP grading, I was impressed by my high school colleagues. These were high school teachers who gave up a week of their lives—for some this meant part of their summer; for others it meant missing a week of classroom instruction—to come sit in a convention center and grade for eight hours a day. I did it for the experience and the pay. They came to Tampa because they wanted to learn how the test is graded so they can better teach their students. They also want to make sure each kid got a fair shot. I watched them agonize over the students who wrote really strong theses, but failed to support them with evidence. For these high school teachers, grading the AP exam provided them the opportunity to improve their teaching, further their historical understanding, and help their students to do better. These are the values that Wieman and Morson and Schapiro claim don’t exist in the humanities. They do. You just have to look for them.