You can’t teach what you don’t know
By now, you’ve probably heard about the Pennsylvania school official who told teachers in his district not to discuss the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection with their students. But here’s what you might have missed: He was likely worried that the teachers weren’t sufficiently prepared to lead classes on the topic.
He’s probably right.
Not about the teaching of Jan. 6, of course, which every school should address in full. But he was correct about the preparation of history teachers, the people most often charged with explaining complex political and social issues to students. Simply put, most of our history teachers are not adequately educated for that task. And until that changes, our students won’t be adequately educated either.
In an email on Jan. 5, the day before the one-year anniversary of the Capitol insurrection, Pennridge School District social studies supervisor Keith Veverka told teachers not to “wade into” the matter, “due to the current polarization and strong emotions.” If students asked about it, Veverka added, teachers should “simply state that the investigation is ongoing and as historians we must wait until there is some distance from the event for us to accurately interpret it.”
Um, no. Historians interpret events as they happen, drawing on the past to understand them. But you can’t do that — at least not well — if you’re not trained in the methods and practices of the discipline.
And most of our history teachers aren’t. A majority of high school history instructors lack either a college major or minor in the subject. As late as 2013, a history teacher in New Jersey could be certified in the subject by taking one — that’s right, just one — college course in it.
True, most states require history teachers to pass the Praxis examination. But that’s a short multiple-choice test, which is significantly less rigorous than high school Advanced Placement tests. You read that right, too: The test we give teachers is easier than the ones we give kids.
And it’s hardly an indicator of real historical understanding, which can only be gained by in-depth study in the subject. I couldn’t teach physics or chemistry, because I don’t know enough about them. I could require students to memorize the periodic table, but that wouldn’t teach my students much of anything.
Yet, that’s precisely how a lot of history instruction in this country still works. High school history teachers lecture for more than half the class period, more than instructors in any other subject. And they often make students memorize long lists of names and dates, without much discussion of what they might mean.
No wonder most students describe history with a single adjective: boring. And they certainly don’t learn much from it. In 2018, only 15 percent of American 8th graders were ranked “proficient” in history by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, down from 18 percent in 2014. High school students are woefully ignorant, too: In a 2018 survey, just 8 percent of seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Over two-thirds didn’t know it was eliminated by a constitutional amendment.
The same report found that nearly half of our teachers didn’t feel equipped to teach about slavery. How could it be otherwise, really? If you haven’t studied the complexities of American slavery, you won’t be able to help your own students understand it.
And you won’t be able to make much sense of Jan. 6, either. Why did it happen? And how does it compare to other episodes of mass violence in the American past? Those are historical questions, and all of our students should be engaged in answering them. But that won’t happen unless we provide their teachers with more practice in doing the same.
When reports about Pennridge School District prohibiting Jan. 6 lessons went viral, most commentary focused on the district’s politics. It turns out that the school board president is a Trump supporter who was in Washington on Jan. 6. There’s no evidence that she entered the Capitol or broke any other law, but her presence in D.C. made for a convenient media frame. “Trump-loving school board president’s district bars teachers from discussing Jan. 6,” one headline blared.
Let’s be clear: Local politics shouldn’t prevent teachers from addressing Jan. 6 — or any other controversial issue — in their classrooms. Several Pennridge teachers who denounced the district’s gag order in newspaper interviews refused to give their names for fear of reprisal, which speaks volumes about the constraints upon them.
But liberating teachers to discuss Jan. 6 won’t do much good if they “weren’t prepared to teach on the topic,” as Veverka reportedly said. That’s not just Veverka’s fault; it’s on all of us. And nothing will get better until we get it right.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn,” which was published in 2021 by City of Light Press.