I have to admit, a few years ago I thought George Washington was overrated. I was unimpressed with the Founding Era, didn’t give a lot of thought to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill or Rights, or the Constitution.
Then I went to a Teacher Institute at Mount Vernon and the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and an NEH Workshop on Benjamin Franklin and for the first time ever I really understood what it meant to be an American.
My history education left a lot to be desired. I really don’t remember doing social studies in elementary and middle school. In high school my history teachers were coaches who sat behind their desks and told us to read textbooks. I was interested in history. My family’s summer vacations often revolved around my newest history obsession. But, I didn’t really learn history. Primary sources and historical thinking…I don’t think I heard those words until college.
It’s unfortunate that it took decades for me to learn about the founding of our country, to analyze sources, place myself in the footsteps of our Founders, and truly understand history. I had the bug as a child, but no one encouraged it.
The last stop during the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute is to Surrender Field at Yorktown. It is the most powerful moment of the week for many of the participants. For me, it is the one spot I insist on returning to each time we go to Virginia as a family. I go there to reflect on the beauty of that moment and what it means to us as Americans. I take my son there because I want him to realize his responsibility as a United States citizen.
Yesterday, in the aftermath of a bitter election cycle I wondered how many Americans would feel that same pride if they stood at that same spot. Would they really understand the power of that moment in our history or would it just be another spot on a vacation? It means so much to me, I think, because I have immersed myself in that era of history. Because I have considered the viewpoint of the Loyalist and the Patriot and the undecided in the 18th century. Because I have walked in the footsteps of those 18th century pioneers, the Revolutionaries, many the same age as the millennials of today, that fought and died for our rights and for our freedom.
This is why history education is so important. What if I didn’t have that opportunity at Mount Vernon or the chance to spend a week in Colonial Williamsburg, learning and experiencing our past. How many other adults are out there that don’t truly understand our past because history education was put on the back burner in their schools.
Common Core is great, but I worry about the impact it may have on social studies education. Of course we want social studies and literacy to be integrated. But, what happens when it is not? What happens when test scores in reading come before becoming a historical thinker? What happens when a teacher favors reading to the exclusion of social studies? When we don’t encourage comparisons and connections? When we place content over thinking? When we assign textbook chapters and don’t discuss sources or ask historical questions?
All of that is happening. It’s happening all over this country in the way we “do” history education.
Often I hear that all teachers are reading teachers. I would like to argue that all teachers are social studies teachers. We must remember that social studies is the umbrella under which every other subject falls. When we study a culture, we study their achievements in math, science, art, literature, and technology. We learn empathy and perspective and critical thinking, all the qualities we want in a citizen. We learn how to be Americans.