George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social Studies/History

“If Students Fail History, Does it Matter?”

August 26, 2011

"If students fail history, does it matter?"

I came across this question posed in one of the forums of the National Council for History Education. It has resulted in some lively discussion, to say the least. The post was based on a report by the same name that ran on CNN this summer (

In it, the correspondent states that "it is clear that students aren't learning history" and that the reasons why could include "apathetic students, how history is tested, and the No Child Left Behind Act squeezing history out of the classroom in favor of math and reading." (I'd love to hear your thoughts on the report after viewing). So what if students do not know their history? Is it really THAT important? I would argue emphatically, "YES IT IS," and for many reasons.

For far too long, history courses have suffered the reputation of being simply being "one 'darned' thing after another." If that is the way it is taught, as a timeline of trivial facts that have no connection or relevance to students, then perhaps there is no value. However, when students are guided to discovering those events that continue to shape our existence and can apply the lessons that are learned from such studies to their own lives, then the study of history becomes not only important, but essential.

In a well-taught history course, students are not assaulted with factoids but learn the processes involved to effectively study the past. This process require us to teach students important skills such as experienced-based decision-making, research, the ability to recognize (and appreciate) multiple points of view, civic engagement and responsibility, and numerous others that facilitate the development of responsible citizens. This "process" is more important than the vast array of "content" that is contained within grossly over-sized history textbooks.

Twenty-First Century learners have at their disposal more information than at any time in history. Teaching them how to effectively sort and interpret this information is more critical than ever. And isn't that what historiography really is?

No other course can be taught in such a way that it can reinforce all others, especially when using an interdisciplinary approach. Developments in mathematics, literature, science, government, and the arts, all take place within the context of history. And to truly understand and appreciate the impact that each of these disciplines has on our lives, one should learn the context within which they developed, the history of their origin.

John Hendrick Clark said it well: " a clock that people use to tell their political time of day. It is also a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been and what they have been. It also tells a people where they are and what they are. Most importantly, history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be." Take away the teaching of history, take away our "clock" and "map," and we as a people will surely lose our way.

So, if your principal, your superintendent, your school board, your local/state/national representatives ask you the question, "If students fail history, does it matter?" how will you respond?

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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