A professor explains the history page before a class at Montana State University. (Photo by Montana State University-Bozeman via Wikimedia Commons.)

History is yesterday's news. Literally.

Unfortunately, according to one professor, the American educational system is leaving history behind and American school kids today don't understand how all of the events happening around them will have long-term impact.

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at NYU's Steinhardt School, says though American students in advanced placement history courses learn a lot about the Civil War, they aren't learning enough about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Zimmerman's daughter is in 11th grade, and though the textbooks discuss more recent wars, he says these current wars are part of this younger generation's reality; some of them don't recall a time before the U.S. was at war.

"We don't have conscription in this country anymore like we've had in most of our previous wars. And therefore, if you grow up in a well-to-do suburb like my daughter, it's extremely unlikely that you'll serve in the military or, anyone you're close to will," he said. "I think that's a really important point here because it's unlikely to affect these kids in a personal and direct way."

During the Vietnam War the younger generation felt connected to the events taking place, in contrast to today, Zimmerman said. But, he added, the disconnect with wars happening now is also due in part to the current approach to teaching.

Giving kids difficult questions about these events taking place around them is an approach the best teachers have used and still use, Zimmerman said. But now there are factors in the education system working against this approach.

"First is the rise of standardized testing as — the gold standard in American education. The second important context of recent years, is, the free speech rights of teachers in their own classrooms have been radically scaled back," he said.

The most important court cases regarding the free speech rights of teachers, Zimmerman says, involved an Indiana teacher who was asked by her students if she'd ever been to an anti-war protest. When the teacher told her students she had participated by honking her horn in support, the school district decided not to renew her contract, and the courts upheld the decision.

"So you put these two factors together, that is the massive rise in standardized testing, and the massive decrease or diminution of teacher rights and I think what you have is a situation where the kind of discussion that I'm asking for is going to be unlikely," he said.

Related Stories