(editor’s note: Paul Horton, American History Teacher at my Alma Mater The University of Chicago Laboratory School does not use history textbooks. The Lab school, as it is known, was listed by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top four schools in America for Ivy League and other top level college placement. He teaches from real history books. These pages have commented on today’s bloated 1000 page 8 lbs. history and political science textbooks. Political correctness and multiculturalism have engorged these books beyond any true historic value, particularly concerning American history. Not only would kids learn how to read and write, the schools could save significant money by not having to pay the $100 per copy of these second rate textbooks). Most first rate history books are under $30.00. As schools go digital, prices will drop even further. Bill Korach www.thereportcard.org).
by Paul Horton, Teacher of American History at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
I will never forget the reaction of my students who carried James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom into their first class of an elective course on the American Civil War. “We can’t read this,” was the almost universal chorus. Students commented on the weight of the book, on the number of pages, and on the comparative lack of photographs, maps, charts, and illustrations.
I had chosen Battle Cry because it was the best book on the subject, brilliantly written, it was a masterful synthesis of the then best scholarship on the War. It was one of the first volumes in the Oxford History of the United States series that purported to value clear narrative writing by the best scholars.
My students at first dreaded the long reading assignments, “we are not even into the war after 250 pages,” I can remember them saying. As the course moved on, they began to love the reading and respect McPherson as though he was a wizard from a fantasy novel. Over the course of thirteen weeks one fall, my students fell in love with history as they fell in love with McPherson as a scholar.
They learned that history is not something that could be memorized and regurgitated. McPherson had taught them to think about history as he weighed in on each topic. When he discussed dissent in the North and the South during the war, he carefully presented the evidence for each region, and laid bare the thought processes behind his own judgments. McPherson guided my students through the evidence like a very patient conductor standing before a very challenged orchestra.
My kids got it! They struggled, they worked through their anxieties about reading a very long book, and they came away from the experience as better thinkers and as young people who had a respect for scholarship in the pursuit of knowledge.
My colleagues report similar experiences. World History students reading John Darwin’s, After Tamerlane, struggle at first, but learn to read difficult prose full of crackling conceptual insights.
The point that I want to make is that the Common Core standards, while admirable, aim much too low. Students definitely benefit from reading documents and short works of nonfiction and analyzing them. Close reading is a skill that our students need to acquire.
I have a sixteen year old in my house that used to read books. When he wanted to learn about World War II, he read Gordon Prange’s, At Dawn We Slept in a week. Since he was given his own computer, however, he prefers watching YouTube videos and reading Wikipedia. His reading habits have deteriorated. He tends to scan information rather than reading to get the big picture. In short, our computer obsession is changing the way that our students read. Students tend to “go fish” with their computers, to scan for discreet facts rather than read to acquire the big picture. The computer is replicating the textbook in this sense. A boring textbook is not something to read, but it is something that will provide answers to possible test items that correspond with specific content objectives.
“Fishing” is no way to learn, reading is. My son learned more from Gordon Prange about history and knowledge than he will ever learn from fishing for discreet test items.
If we want our kids to learn to think and to respect knowledge as knowledge, and, better yet, to learn to respect the sacrifices that previous generations have made to create our Republic, we need to encourage students to read gracefully written narrative history. The Oxford History of the United States is a good start as are the beautifully written works of David McCullough.
Paul Horton, History teacher University High School, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools; State Liaison, Illinois Council for History Education
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