Tuesday, December 04, 2018

From the Archives: Arlington schools need history bridge (1996)

This article appeared in The Washington Times on December 4, 1996, under the headline "Arlington schools need history bridge." At the time, I was serving on the Social Studies Advisory Committee for the Arlington County Public Schools. The committee monitored and made recommendations about the teaching of history, government, economics, sociology, and other social sciences in elementary, middle, and high schools.

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In his 1978 essay, "Teaching History Backwards," Ernest Lefever noted that "most high school seniors probably know more about ancient Greece and Rome and the voyages of Columbus than about the recent events that have shaped the outlook of their parents."

Mr. Lefever went on to say that learning history "is vital for any people. It is especially so for the United States, which is a democracy, a superpower, and the leader of the free world. The exercise of U.S. power and influence or the failure to exercise it has global reverberations. A responsible American citizen must understand this and must also be aware of the external dangers that threaten our freedom or that of our allies."

Richard Sincere Ernest Lefever Teaching History Backwards
Rick Sincere and Ernest Lefever
The global scene has changed tremendously in the past 20 years - symbolized vividly by the fall of the Berlin Wall - but this perspective is still valid today.

To address the problem of how the recent past affects our present more saliently than the distant past, even while schools often fail to teach about recent events, Mr. Lefever suggested "teaching history backwards," starting with the past 30 years, then moving on to more distant developments that have affected the United States and world affairs.

For the past several years, the Social Studies Advisory Committee has recommended that the Arlington Public Schools add a fourth year of social studies to the required high school curriculum.

Specifically, we have recommended that a second year of world history be offered in grade 10, largely to compensate for the phenomenon that many of us have experienced - one year of world history is simply too short to cover all of the developments in the 20th century. We commonly experience this as "not getting past World War II" in a typical history course.

Arlington schools now face an additional problem: The new state Standards of Learning require an assessment at grade 11, which may become a barrier to graduation, just like the "literacy passport." We felt that something should be done to prepare our students for that test in a way that also would fulfill our long-held desire for a fourth required course in social studies.

In response, the curriculum development staff has recommended a new 10th-grade course called "The World Since `The War to End All Wars.'" This staff proposal, which has been forwarded to the School Board for final approval by Superintendent Arthur Gosling, meets the criteria set by the Social Studies Advisory Committee. The course is precisely what our committee members had in mind when we made our repeated recommendations for a fourth year of social studies. As envisioned, it combines history, geography and political science and brings students up to date in regard to the important events and trends of our own era.

A course like this builds a conceptual bridge to the 21st century and helps students find a common language to communicate with their parents and grandparents, who lived through these events and trends.

Some parents and students object to this change in the curriculum - which would begin in the 1998-1999 school year - because it reduces elective opportunities for students, particularly art or music courses. True, the number of electives available during 10th grade would fall from three to two, but the negative impact - if there is any at all - would fall on students taking social studies electives, primarily psychology (359 students), sociology (173), advanced placement European history (143) and economics (25). Out of 1,100 10th-grade students, only a few dozen - if any at all - would have to forgo art or music classes.

One reason the School Board is considering this curriculum change now is precisely to give fair warning to parents and middle school students that in two years they will have to meet this new requirement, and that they should plot out their course of electives with this in mind. Those desiring to take art, music or advanced placement European history can plan on taking them in later grades, or can use one of the other two 10th-grade elective slots for these courses.

If the Virginia Board of Education makes the 11th-grade social studies assessment a barrier to graduation, but the School Board fails to make this curriculum change, we could face major problems down the road. Should any Arlington students fail the test because no preparation was available in 10th grade, our whole school system will be poorer for it.

In designing this new course and considering all other options, the staff aimed for minimal disruption to the current curriculum, as well as the lowest cost to taxpayers.

The new 20th century history course is being added to the high school program of studies with almost surgical precision, designed to meet both state-mandated requirements and the desire of Arlingtonians to prepare our students from the classes of 2001 and beyond to be better, more informed citizens.

* The writer is co-chairman of the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington Public Schools.

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