I’ve just read what is hands-down my favorite article this month. It’s so good that I hate to excerpt or summarize it, so please read the whole thing whole thing if you can.
Ok, for those of you that don’t take orders well — the core of the article deals with a well-educated AP student that has come through a history education that has given him a command of facts that the Common Core crowd would be goodly proud of. They give him a document to analyze historically:
The document was a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. “Discovery Day,” as Harrison called it, honored Christopher Columbus as a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” In the schools, in the churches, and in “the other places of assembly of the people,” Harrison wrote, “let there be expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer.”
Jacob’s response to the document was deeply revealing. “The first thing that jumps out,” he noted, “is that Columbus is a pioneer of ‘progress and enlightenment.’ ” But Jacob had his own opinion: “From what I’ve learned, his goals were not entirely noble. Just get rich, whatever; … he claimed to be a true Christian, but he also captured and tortured Indians, so he wasn’t maybe as noble as this is having him be.”
This response, typical among the group of AP students we interviewed, is in many ways ideal. Jacob marshaled background knowledge about Columbus and worked his way toward the Bloomian peak, eventually challenging President Harrison’s praise for Columbus with his own critical alternative. His response, though unpolished and in need of elaboration, seems like critical thinking. And that’s how the teachers we interviewed generally saw it. Nice job, Jacob.
Except when they give the document to history graduate students, something really interesting happens:
But then we asked a group of history graduate students what they saw in the document. And they saw something totally different. To them, the document wasn’t about 1492—or even Columbus. To them, it was about immigration and voting. That threw us for a loop. Then we got it.
These graduate students had no more specialized knowledge of Columbus than Jacob or his AP history classmates. They were writing their theses on topics like French colonialism in Tunisia and the aftershocks of the Meiji Restoration. But the advantage they had was the ability to think historically about the documents.
From the start, it was clear what the young historians were doing differently. As one began his reading: “OK, it’s 1892.”
Our high school student Jacob knew the story of Columbus. But he didn’t know how to read a document as the product of a particular time and place. To the historians, critical thinking didn’t mean assembling facts and passing judgment; it meant determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge.
Here’s the thing — the graduate students knew less about American history than Jacob, but they knew how to read historical documents. And it turns out that in this instance (and really most instances as far as I can make out) having historical skill is more important than having historical knowledge — even when that historical knowledge is directly relevant to the task at hand.
I really cannot overstate how important this is. It is one of the fundamental realizations underlying the restructuring of Keene State’s general education program. It’s not a new realization.
But although we had the research to show we were right in what we did, we didn’t have the perfect story to explain it. Until now.
(thanks to @jonmott who tweeted this link out…)