3 Park School teachers grapple with essentials of teaching history


I committed a crime against humanity.

It was 32 years ago at a public high school in New York. I was hired in early September to replace a teacher who had resigned suddenly.

Her schedule included three classes of English -- no problem there. And two of American history. Big problem there.

"I have no idea how to teach American history," I told the principal. "I was an English major. I didn't even take a history course in college."

"No problem," said the principal. "Just stay a chapter ahead in the textbook."

I did, accelerating my recitation of "facts" and events when it became obvious by springtime that I wouldn't get through the book by the end of the school year.

Unfortunately, such crimes are repeated every year in thousands of classrooms around the country. That's one of the reasons for the recently published national standards for teaching American and world history -- to help teachers put history in context, to help students make connections between past and present and to connect history with their own lives. In short, to make history exciting.

The idea, reduced to raw simplicity, is that if history is taught this way, students will learn the "content" of history -- the facts and figures and dates and names -- almost by accident.

For the past month, three senior teachers at the Park School in Baltimore have been grappling with history -- how to teach it, what to emphasize, what is essential. The three, Brooks Lakin (department chairman), Butch Ashman and John Roemer, are engaged in a generously endowed "Faculty and Curricular Advancement Program" which allows teachers to work for a month in the summer on projects chosen through a competitive application process. (They receive an extra month's full pay, a luxury few public-school teachers could enjoy.)

I sat in on some of the sessions, partly as penance for my earlier sin, partly because this was a fascinating three-man seminar, with Mr. Roemer, a civil libertarian, occasionally clashing philosophically with Mr. Ashman while Mr. Lakin acted as referee. (Mr. Roemer and Mr. Ashman, who served as a Marine in Vietnam, jointly teach an elective course at Park on the ethics of violence and nonviolence.)

As a private school, Park can teach history the way it wants, and it usually does things differently. American history is no exception. Instead of relegating all of U.S. history to a year, Park takes students through the isolationist 19th century in one course, then teaches 20th-century U.S. history in the context of world history.

Students at Park approach history by considering history's "enduring questions," said Mr. Lakin, and it is those questions that the three teachers have spent most of the month arguing, refining, adding or dropping. The questions are deliberately provocative, much more so than the standards set by the national group of 6,000 teachers, administrators, scholars, parents and business leaders. Those standards were deliberately made noncontroversial -- "list the factors that contributed to the causes of the Great Depression" -- but even then ran into political resistance.

"What are the risks of using physical force to attain political ends?" Park teachers ask. "Is there anything positive to be said for the family oriented conservatism of the 1950s?" "Do we have to tolerate the intolerant?" "To what degree should the military be under civilian control?"

"We try to be self-critical and self-reflective all the time," said Mr. Lakin. "We try to build the factual material into the overall conceptual framework."

Civics, that effort to inculcate citizenship that many of us took as a separate course, is worked into the Park curriculum. In fact, said Mr. Roemer, educated people have civic responsibilities. "One of those responsibilities," he said, "is to agree to lose. Human beings, especially American human beings, aren't gifted at losing."

The national standards have been attacked by conservative critics, who claim they were hijacked by politically correct liberals bent on downgrading Western achievements.

Park's historians have been looking through the two thick volumes of the voluntary national standards, one for world, one for American history. Mr. Lakin said some of the material is useful. "There has to be some standardization."

But the trouble with teaching history, all three teachers agreed, is that whenever one topic is emphasized, another is neglected. The new national standards simply make the choices more difficult.

One man's feast of words

It could be said of Samuel L. Banks, who died last week at 64, that he "has been praised for his creative, intrepid and sedulous pursuit of truth and willingness to involve the broader Baltimore community in serious and substantive discussion of urgent and vital contemporary issues. Particularly impressive is his understanding of the richness and diversity of black life and history within a world perspective, or Weltanschauung."

Those words were written by Sam Banks -- about someone else. But they represent pure Banksian, a language Berlitz doesn't teach.

For much of the last quarter-century, Dr. Banks was director of social studies for the city school system, then in recent years head of compensatory education programs. I asked him several years ago why he insisted on filling his prose with gobbledygook. "It's not gobbledygook," he said. "It's scholarly writing, and The Sun can use some scholarly writing."

Let us not, however, concentrate on Dr. Banks' language. He was an unusual bureaucrat who supported and protected those who worked for him. Wanting desperately to be superintendent himself, he survived six school chiefs as an administrator, and each no doubt wished Dr. Banks would pack up his thesaurus and move to Alaska. Unlike any other official at 25th Street and North Avenue, Sam Banks never hid his feelings on any topic for any reason.

If he saw the emperor without clothes, he said so, and it may have cost him the superintendency. But Dr. Banks heeded the admonition uttered by his hero, Carter G. Woodson: "When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions."

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