Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Do Undergrads Know about History?

Randall Stephens

Some years back I taught an American history survey, 1877-present, at a Florida community college. In an exam one of the students wrote an essay in which he/she placed the American Civil War in the early 20th century. I was shocked. Was I that bad of a teacher? Did incoming students not know the basic chronology of American history? Was this student just particularly thick? Was the state of historical thinking worse than in previous generations?

Several years ago my colleague Joe Lucas interviewed Sam Wineburg in Historically Speaking. Wineburg, author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001), had been studying history education for some time. Has knowledge about the past declined among high school and college students? asked Lucas. "There is something almost comical about a group of adults wringing their hands, yearning for a time that never was," replied Wineburg about the supposed declension.

Regardless of whether students understand less about the past now than, say, they did in 1963, history professors are faced with a problem of figuring out just what a student does or does not know. (I've been thinking about organizing a Historically Speaking forum based around the question: "What Do Undergraduates Know about History?")

History professors enter the classroom every fall and spring, often wondering what they can assume their students know or don't know about history. Will the typical freshman have any knowledge of the basic chronology of western or American history? Do they have any ideas about what made the Roman Empire important? Would they know, approximately, when Rome thrived? (Perhaps they carry with them some general Sunday School knowledge about that or have seen Gladiator.)

What about American history? Would the typical student know who fought the U.S. in the war of 1812? What about the reasons for that war? Could an incoming major or non-major describe what was happening in the U.S. between 1877 and 1917? Could they say anything about what transpired in the American colonies between 1690 and 1740?

I've come to the conclusion that I should assume that most students know little upon entering the class on the first day. But, there are variables here. Depending on where one teaches, the students will know more or less. Perhaps those who scored higher on SATs and ACTs will also come pre-equipped with basic historical knowledge. Students who had good high school history experiences probably also fare better.

It helps to pause and think about this now and then. It's always wise to stop and meditate on your pupils' historical perspective before launching into that intricate lecture on the roots of 18th-century republicanism.


hcr said...

I'm of the no-one-knows-anything school, since I find the gaps in my own knowledge astonishing. I assume that every course, every lecture, and every book has to be self-contained... and even still I get tripped up by forgetting to spell out what seems to me obvious. This approach has great advantages, since it turns out that much I think I know well because it's common knowledge I don't really know at all. (Ever try to explain exactly how news of the Declaration of Independence spread across the Colonies?)My own understanding of history has changed as I've been forced to learn-- really learn-- how basic systems actually work.

I'm not sure their lack of knowledge is any great failing on the part of students. It's just that they know different things than we do. I know a great deal about American history, for example, but only last week learned that Brazil is really, really big. And I've never learned how to cut a web video.

But they sure better learn what I teach in class! The woman who claimed that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery because Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder probably won't be taking another of my courses in a hurry.

Great photo, by the way.

Jonathan Dresner said...

Like HCR, I've stopped assuming that my students know much, but there are areas where you have to contend with detailed and serious interest even from students without strong general historical backgrounds. In the field of Asian history, of course, there's all kinds of interest in (and misconceptions about) religions (karma! and Tao!), military and martial "traditions", warfare, etc. Then there are the idee fixe about things like Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, and the odd historical ideas that come from manga, anime....

Jonathan Rees said...


I think "What SHOULD undergrads know about history?" would be a much better question than "What do undergraduates know about history?"

Randall said...

Jonathan: That would yield some interesting answers as well, maybe more fruitful than the question I raised.

But my idea is to gauge what history profs thinks their students know or don't know.

I'm not sure I agree with Wineburg about this. I think basic content knowledge has gotten worse. But, then again, I don't research this as he does.

Katherine J said...

I have a new strategy this year: at the beginning of my 1877 to present class I put up the categores 1877-1900; 1900-1929; 1929-1945; and 1945-present. I then had my students give me what they know. Some were better than others, (Jimi Hendrix was mentioned in 2 out of my 3 classes, I believe).

Anyways, after doing that little exercise, I took a picture of the boards (I also took a picture of one of the classes -- the incredulous looks on their faces are priceless).

Now after we reach each (admittedly arbitrary) era demarcation, I stop and review what we've learned. I put up the first day's list and have them add to it -- thus demonstrating what they've learned, but also reinforcing the themes that we've been discussing and creating links between the eras. So far so good!

Bland Whitley said...

I tend to think Wineburg's probably correct--it's important to note that there are many more young people attending college nowadays. But that has not necessarily led to an increase in the number of undergrads who arrive with a sound command of historical facts. That number will probably always be confined to those who received really top-notch educations and/or grew up being interested in knowing stuff about the past. Still, there's probably been a de-emphasis on learning facts qua facts, which may have some bearing on this.

Randall said...

I like the old metaphor of facts as a frame on which to build bigger ideas about the past.

I think it's verifiable that students do study less now than they did a generation ago.

Got to go de-curmudgeon myself now.

hcr said...

What SHOULD students know? That's a good question. I mean, there's critical thinking and all, but are there historical facts that every citizen should know?

An educator I respect points out that humans are wired to learn. But since the 1980s, America has denigrated scholarship, forcing people to learn other things by default. There's technology, of course, but also things less laudatory....