MONDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2022
Overwhelmingly boring, but safe: How should kids in Virginia, or anywhere else, be taught American history?
In truth, it's very hard to devise a grade school curriculum, especially at such polarized times as these. We think we recall the way we were taught when we were in grade school.
This takes us back to the no-longer existent Mystic School in Winchester, Massachusetts, back when Joe Bellino was lugging the ball for the Winchester High School Sachems, on his way to the Naval Academy and a Heisman trophy.
(Yes, that was our school's actual name—see Mystic River. It was part of the Winchester Public Schools. We kids played marbles in the schoolyard, then glumly trooped inside.)
If memory serves, the way we were taught was astoundingly boring, but it was also safe:
Thirty kids would sit in the classroom holding thirty copies of some history textbook open to some designated page. The teacher would call out names, one at a time, and the youngster whose name had been called would read the next paragraph of the day's assigned chapter aloud.
Was that really the way it worked? We actually think it was! If so, it was astoundingly unimaginative, but it was also safe.
Here's what we mean by that:
As long as some such procedure is followed, at no point will teachers be inclined to start spouting off with their own unique ideas about some topic or other. We kids would just drone along from the textbook. No teacher input required!
Under some such system, it's easy to define the curriculum—you just have to look at the textbook! The textbook may contain outright errors or limited frameworks, but at least the errors and weird ideas aren't coming from hundreds of different sources. This shields everyone from the vagaries of fate.
In that way, some such system is "safe." For us kids, it was also amazingly dull, and it was an extremely limited way to proceed in the face of thirty inquiring minds, or possibly one or two fewer.
Most states take a different approach today. In states like Virginia, large groups of education professionals are gathered together for the task of defining the state's curriculum.
Rather, they define the "standards of learning" for each grade—the various things the kids should learn in each year of their public school journey. The state's three million public school teachers are directed to take things from there. And yes, they actually refer to those "Standards of Learning" as the state's "SOLs!"
Under this system, there won't be some single textbook to which teachers are forced to restrict themselves. On the other hand, the resulting grade-by-grade curriculum guidelines will often drift toward incoherence, as you can possibly see by clicking here.
(As in this Washington Post report, we're linking to "a draft version of the SOLs that had been in the works for months: a more than 400-page document produced in consultation with museums, historians, professors, political scientists, economists, geographers, teachers, parents and students.")
Apparently, suggestions were thrown in a Waring blender and that lengthy word salad emerged. The Post report tilts toward the idea that these were admirable guidelines—signposts of obvious pre-Youngkin worth.
Reading a single mandated textbook can be unbelievably easy. By way of contrast, deciphering 400 pages of highly pomposified technospeak can be extremely hard.
Teachers may scream and tear at their hair. At some point, chaos may reign.
When we were in fifth grade, our regular teacher had to be replaced for some unstated reason. A long-term substitute—Mrs. E—suddenly appeared in her place.
Mrs. E had surprising ideas of her own. More on that tomorrow!