Living & Teaching in the Era of Standards
There is a lot of hype – good and bad – about the standards movement in education. Like most political rhetoric today, I tend to think that much of this hype lacks substance. Teachers have been using standards for a long, long time. In the 1950's, textbooks were already printing "objective statements" in the margins. Today's standards are little more than codified objective statements. In this sense, I don't see much to get excited about one way or the other. I actually think there is something to be said for a universal set of minimum standards by which all Americans are measured. We can always strive to go beyond them, but we should certainly have a point below which we do not wish to fall. We may argue about who should manage schools or curriculums and so on, but we cannot pretend that a country/civilization like ours doesn't have a vested interest in the content which schools teach to children.
That said, which standards one subscribes to is important. We can imagine that there are better and worse objectives, some more or less useful than others. And, to the extent that politicians seek to slip in doctrinaire social policy, then that can be a significant problem...in the public schools anyway. In the private school world, where I live, we are free to choose our own standards. Depending on the school, and the state, that might happen in a number of different ways. Our own school, in anticipation of our upcoming re-accreditation, is moving to firm up the standards which we use to define our curricular choices.
So that I might be in the most advantageous position to contribute to this conversation, if so called upon, I have begun reading a new book called Lessons from History: Essential Understandings and Historical Perspectives Students Should Acquire. It is a collaborative project undertaken by the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA and financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The work was released in 1992, making it a forerunner (and contributor) to today's standards, including Common Core. I do not intend to say much about CC here. Rather, I am interested to see the thought process which has informed these standards.
The other reason I am drawn to this set of standards, is that the authors seem to have understood that the study of History is both a humanitarian discipline and a social science.
“As a school subject, [History] embraces both the humanities and the social studies, neither of which can prosper without history's context and perspectives. It is the most synthesizing of all the disciplines, not just another bundle of subject-matter, but a way of ordering and apprehending reality.” (1)
In other words, the collaborators in this project rightly understood that History presents something more than just knowledge about the past (though such knowledge could be said to be worthy of study in itself). History is also a kind of moral lens through which we see and evaluate everything else - especially the actions of men and nations. Although this text is not religious in any, yet this view of History is largely consistent with Biblical Christianity. We want to be careful here - this is a secular document, and we do not want to force a religious view onto a text which is purposely non-religious. Nevertheless, if our underlying presuppositions prove compatible, then this text may prove immensely helpful.
Most of Lessons from History is given, as the title implies, to the essential understandings and perspectives which should be cultivated by History teachers in their students. However, the first forty-five pages is given over to philosophical and pedagogical considerations; and it is these especially which I should like to develop here at some point in the future.