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Bad History

As a high school special education teacher and adjunct instructor of education at Pace University, I was deeply concerned by with the nature and content of this month’s Global History and Geography Regents exam. The exam reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of teaching Global History in public high schools and revealed that the New York State Board of Regents is at best conflicted about the purpose of the exam, and at worst wrong in its concept of what history should be taught.

The recent results of a 2010 NAEP assessment in U.S. History have rightfully been damned by leading figures in the school reform movement as evidence of a startling lack of student knowledge about the history of our country. My experience administering the exam this year showed me that there is a disconnect between the State Board of Regents and teachers on history teaching. The victims of this disconnect are the students who deserve to be appropriately assessed on their understanding of global history but are not.

My main concern about this year’s exam lay with the “Document Based Question,” or DBQ, which asked students to synthesize primary source material into an essay that addressed the concept of human rights using three examples: the Ukrainian famine of the 1920s and 1930s, the Cambodian crisis of 1970s, and the conflicts in Rwanda during the 1990s. The lumping of these three unique experiences into a group of “human rights violations” is bad historiography. I’m not a history teacher, but my understanding is that good history requires the consideration of people, policies, and events within the framework of the governing ideologies and realities of the particular time and place. The concept of “human rights,” while part of political traditions dating back to ancient Greece, is most directly associated with the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights, which was drafted in Paris in 1948. Since then, human rights has been used as a framework for understanding both the most inspiring examples of the struggle for freedom and dignity, as well as examples of governments and policies that oppress, destroy, and kill. This history is a standard and necessary component of the global studies curriculum and should be how all schools teach the concept of human rights.

It is far too simple to then impose this concept on an event as complex as the Ukrainian famine and experience during the 1920s and 1930s. While one cannot necessarily argue against considering Stalin’s collectivization plans and policies toward Ukraine and its people a human rights violation, it is a well established best practice, and better history, to teach students to interpret history from the point of view of its actors. Is it best to understand the “Reign of Terror” during the French Revolution or the rule of Genghis Khan as human rights violations? Or is there more to gain by considering the events of a particular time and place from the perspective of those who experienced it? Rigorous historical thinking supports the latter approach. Human rights are best understood from the perspective of those who affirm them in the face of the most egregious violations and not from the perspective of the governments and policies that violate them.

Furthermore, I was struck by the historically inappropriate nature of the documents that students were asked to use. For example, one document was a transcript of a “Frontline” episode in which a narrator describes the refugee crisis in Rwanda and a journalist from The New Yorker provides additional input. What is the purpose of teaching students to read transcripts from television programs? Shouldn’t an exam worth this amount of preparation and importance use more contemporary primary sources that historians are using to construct our understanding of events such as those in Rwanda? Even, for example, clips from the TV show itself? Teachers are expected, as they should be, to teach units that integrate technology and a variety of media. The Regents exam should do the same. A complex historical question, like the DBQ essay this year, requires commensurate documents. There is more to gain from a student constructing an understanding of a concept or an event from sources from a variety of media. If we expect better historical writing from our students, then it’s time to broaden the DBQ to include better documents.

Finally, while students are prohibited from using the United States as the primary example in their essays, several documents focused on policies in which the United States played a fundamental if not an active role. One document discussed the role of Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia as a source of popular support for dictator Pol Pot. Another document emphasized the importance of the response by the Clinton Administration to the events in Rwanda. While I understand that the United States does not have to be the focus of an understanding of these examples, including these primary sources only unnecessarily complicates a student’s task. An understanding of human rights violations in second half of the 20th century necessitates a role for the United States. If we want students to demonstrate their understanding of these events well, then they should not be prohibited from focusing on the United States in their essays.

What is the overall purpose of the Global History and Geography Regents exam? If the State of New York wishes to challenge students with questions such as the DBQ about Ukraine, Cambodia, and Rwanda, then teachers need the opportunity (and indeed a mandate) to teach thematic units that explore a deeper understanding of these events as linked beyond their shared character as “human rights violations.” All are equally linked by imperialism, the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy, the advance of modern military technology, racial and ethnic tensions, nationalism, scarcity of resources, and economic policy and planning. If the Board of Regents wants complex thinking from our students, its tests should at least reflect a solid grasp of historiography and an understanding of how students best construct knowledge. The Board of Regents and the experts who write this exam should be encouraging creative units from teachers that are based not only on state curriculum standards, but that are rooted in the work of historians. With this information, they could better write a test and DBQ that would include primary source material from a wide range of media, and reflect constructivist history and social studies learning.

This year’s DBQ was cheap and lazy. The teachers who work hard to convey the complexities of historical thinking and the students who rise to the challenge of writing history from their own unique perspectives deserve better.

I can anticipate several responses to my critique of the global history exam and its DBQ question: teachers need to teach better; these things should be reinforced at home; standardized tests themselves are the problem. These issues have been thoroughly debated and should remain at the core of the debate about the quality of public education. But regardless of the critique, no one can legitimately question the need for learning history. And if we don’t appropriately assess historical knowledge, then why bother teaching it well? The DBQ question on the Global History and Geography exam was bad history. And if we don’t learn our lesson from it now, we’ll be doomed to repeat it.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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