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Give Us the Facts

Theodore Rabb betrays an anti-fact bias in education, rooted in (1) the countercultural “sixties,” which produced the postmodern rejection of knowledge altogether; (2) the concomitant rise of diversity-obsessed PC that resulted in the “Pachelbel canon”—the study of minorities and ordinary people—substituting for the Western canon; and (3) the Internet, which rendered memorization superfluous as a skill (even if we increased the number of “dependent” learners) and permitted a shift from teaching “the basics” to teaching “higher-order” skills (no matter how pretentious the leap).

Devaluing of facts was evidenced by National History Standards Project director Gary Nash, who proclaimed “we want to let children out of the prison of facts and dates.” When not compared to Abu Ghraib, asking students to know facts has been ridiculed as the Jeopardy! approach to history. According to Rabb, better that we adopt Oprah as the model: history education as an exercise in musing and schmoozing—no right or wrong answers, only one-paragraph essays that will be frequently illiterate, always subjective, and inevitably fuel grade inflation.

Granted, we have been guilty of excess rote memorization, but we're now at risk of overcorrecting for the problem. Today’s students are not exactly overdosing on facts. Latest surveys show half of 18–24 year-olds are unable to locate New York state on a map (never mind Iraq), while half of all Americans don't know they have two U.S. senators, much less can name them. Our education systems have never done a good job of providing students a solid base of factual knowledge. What's different now is that we no longer expect students to have one–we've thrown in the towel.

This begs the question: how can a student do “critical thinking” about American federalism if she's clueless about the most elemental features of the republic, such as where New York is and how many representatives it has in the Senate? We've turned our K–16 systems upside-down: little Johnny can't find the potty but is now doing “higher-order thinking” in kindergarten, while instructors in higher education have to explain that Lenin is not one of the Beatles and Bismarck is not an office supply store.

Even if we agree that multiple-choice exams are not an optimal assessment tool, one hopes Rabb would acknowledge that, no matter what pedagogy is used (lecture or active learning) and whatever material is “covered,” kids should know key historical facts and teachers should be accountable for teaching them and, hence, instruments must be developed that reliably tap such concerns. If that is teaching to the test, so be it. There would seem nothing heartless or mindless about this.