History in school education

Ancient India

Yesterday, Wall Street Journal and NPR reported on the abysmal performance of kids in standardized history tests across schools in the United States. I heard a lively discussion on the topic on KQED during my morning commute. For those interested, the full report is available here. The topic was at once urgent and pertinent because it touched the core of what is wrong with education world over today.

For a moment, let us ignore the specific findings of the report and look at the bigger picture. Teachers are trained to be idealists aiming to revolutionize the class and students they are dealt with. They are taught to create, improvise and innovate. But in a budget constrained, teacher constrained, competitive and ideology driven school environment, there is little scope for any of the tools the teacher aspires to utilize. Not to say everything is a lost cause. But deviation from mean in terms of offering real education and not just rote information and data is not the norm. And when there is a priority list of things in schools it is always math and science. The scores in standardized tests for students goes a long way in determining house prices in the community, state and federal funding for the school district, teacher wages and employment and eventually the survival of the school itself. So anything that doesnt really count towards the test scores are less important- history, social science, PE, arts are all sacrificed at the altar of greater school success.

Coming from India, I hated the fact that my math and science courses counted for everything. Nothing else mattered. My love for history (who would not have stars in his/her eyes hearing of the valor of kings and their politics that built our nations) was nipped in the bud. Today, I am an avid consumer of all information related to Indian and world history- of events that shaped our beliefs and our boundaries. I loved the arts and wanted to get into a creative career- but there was no hope then. One of the things that stuck me as remarkable when I came to the US was the scope and adoption of non-conventional careers. Something that would have helped so many of us. And now we hear of how most school programs that dont conform to the key focus areas of science and math are slowly but steadily whittled down.

History is but a pawn in a bigger problem game- is the western educational system getting more Asian in style, adoption and execution?. I hope not. The Asian system of education awards scientists, engineers and doctors and punishes most others. I really hope that when my son is in the throes of choosing his career, there are real, and meaningful choices for him. And it all starts with getting well rounded education in all areas.