Years ago I had a coworker who fancied himself a history buff. Not being a history teacher himself, he relished the thought of trying to stump me with a question. One of his favorites, which he asked me pretty much half the time, was “you do know what Zachary Taylor’s nickname was, don’t you?” I never answered the question, preferring to give him his moments to shine where he could puff out his chest and smugly inform me that it was “Old Rough and Ready”. I would nod my head in bland acknowledgment, allowing the conversation to end on a high note for him so I could get back to doing work. Like many self-professed history buffs, what he likes is not so much history as it is trivia. No understanding of history is required to know that Zachary Taylor’s nickname was “Old Rough and Ready”. My coworker would have done better to ask what role Taylor had in defeating Mexico or why he became president. These questions would require some ability to synthesize facts in order to give a sweep of history. It would be more in line with the historian’s craft.
Although the man is no longer my coworker, I am reminded of him every day by the fact that I have to prepare my students for Regents exams. For sure, I have spoken to many people associated with the crafting of the U.S. History Regents and they seem to be fairly competent and knowledgeable. The exams they produce, however, are the paper versions of my annoying coworker. They lie in wait brandishing overly specific questions, many of which they have asked before. A student’s entire worth as an amateur historian will be measured by whether or not they can answer tiny questions plucked from a vast historical universe. Maybe there is a student who knows everything about the Mexican War. They can even draw a map of Taylor’s and Santa Anna’s forces at the Battle of Buena Vista. But if they do not know that Zach Taylor was “Old Rough and Ready”, their knowledge of all early 1800s America is called into question. Essentially, our children are not expected to know much more than trivia when it comes to American history.
To be fair, the Regents usually do not descend to the same level of minutiae as my coworker. But when the format calls for chopping up 500 years of American history into 50 multiple choice questions, obviously some things will get focused on more than others. Take this past June’s Regents. The period from the ratification of the Constitution (roughly 1788) through the Reconstruction era (roughly 1877) was covered in six questions (questions 11-16): 11) Louisiana Purchase, 12) John Marshall, 13) Manifest Destiny, 14) Dred Scott, 15) Radical Reconstruction, 16) literacy exams, poll taxes and grandfather clauses. The message of these multiple choice questions is that it does not really matter if you know about Washington’s Presidency, the XYZ Affair, Lewis and Clark, the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, Indian Removal, Nat Turner, John Quincy Adams or the creation of the Republican Party. The fact of the matter is that the Regents mostly asks important questions that every American should know. There is nothing wrong with asking about the Louisiana Purchase or John Marshall. The problem lies in the format. The test makers have to work within a framework that forces them to elevate certain topics over others. It is the only way they can get away with not asking a single direct question about the Civil War, the bloodiest event in American history. The grand, sweeping march of history is way too big for a series of isolated questions to contain.
In this we confront the danger of the education reformers. They love standardized exams. Exams are like the goose laying golden eggs of “data” for the reformers to use to give their vacuous ideas an air of scientific respectability. The grades on those exams will determine the fate of both the student and the teacher. That fate will involve a lot of school closings and a lot of money from those closed schools going into the pockets of wealthy charter school operators. As you can see, nowhere in this fate is our citizenry expected to have a true understanding of American history. They just need to be prepared for the dead end questions, many of them asked before, that are thrown at them arbitrarily. One of the original missions, if not the original mission, of public schooling was to help shape our kids to be solid citizens. If we have to give exams, why not give exams that require our kids to acquire, analyze and synthesize information so that they may have the critical thinking skills necessary to participate in American democracy? Why not have teachers create and grade those exams, since they should know better than anyone the themes and ideas to which their students were exposed? They can ask questions that require students to present a critical sweep of history.
We know full well why not. The reformers do not want our schools producing solid citizens. Solid citizens are informed, knowledgeable and expect certain basic things, like human dignity. The fabulous wealth these reformers accumulated in the business world depends upon an apathetic, uninformed citizenry. In short, the reformers want to educate poor children to accept poverty, while turning a blind eye to the obscene wealth of the reformers themselves. Instead of budding historians who would easily see how vast inequalities of wealth pervert democracy, they want a bunch of trivia freaks who can answer simple questions for prize money. Instead of professional teachers who know and love their craft, they want to boil teaching down to memorizing facts. The deskilling of the art of teaching that has taken place under the reformers is only their first step. Their goal is to get rid of teaching altogether. After all, if all kids need to do to graduate is spit back arbitrary facts, what better teacher than a computer? The student can run a computer program of random, disjointed facts from U.S. History played to catchy, repetitive music. After listening to it a few hundred times over the course of a semester, they will have memorized everything. In this way, learning will be no different than when kids listen to the radio and know all the lyrics to every song since the same songs are always being played. Test scores will go up, kids will think learning is cool, Bill Gates will be a triple gadzillionaire and the evil teacher unions will be no more.
It is time that people wake up and recognize that the reformers are genuine radicals who want to totally revolutionize what we are as a country. The rich and the powerful want to control the way every child is educated. They do this to keep themselves rich and powerful. The battle over our school system today will determine whether we can restore some semblance of democracy and goodness to our country, or whether the caste system that has taken hold here over the past three decades is here to stay.