Why Study History? Part IV: The Displacement of History in Education

Note: This is the eighth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In the previous four posts (see end of this post for links), I argued that History plays a central role in education. In spite of this, since the late nineteenth century, American education has seen a steady decline in the teaching of certain academic fields, primarily the arts and humanities (including history). No doubt the cause of this change goes well beyond what can be covered here, but a few general observations concerning this shift in curriculum may be observed.

First, the changes in emphasis of curriculum are due to an overall change in the view of the ends of education. As mentioned above, both humane and utilitarian views of education go back thousands of years, with the dominant view being the humane education which seeks to make students good. Recently, however, utilitarian views of education have become dominant, at least in the United States. For example, the United States Department of Education’s stated purpose is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” No doubt, the competition to which this statement refers is “jobs” or “careers.” The consistent message from politicians with regard to education is that students need to be prepared to enter the “workforce,” and that we must be more “competitive” in math and sciences so that Americans will not be displaced by foreign competition in the job market.

In order to achieve these goals, a shift in curricula is necessary. For example, in 2007 the United States passed the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 110-69) which specific purpose is “to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States.” Again, “competitiveness” is the driving force. To do this, the act shifts funding for educational programs into S.T.E.M. disciplines. S.T.E.M. refers to any discipline which correlates to Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics. Accordingly the act authorizes funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy Office of Science. As educational programs receive increased funding in S.T.E.M. disciplines, they must necessarily de-emphasize non-S.T.E.M. fields like history and the humanities.

Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesSecond, these shifts, though not a direct result of, are certainly influenced by an overall Cartesian view of knowledge which emphasizes certainty above all else. The “pure” sciences, like mathematics, lead to absolute certainty in matters of truth. Without certainty there is no knowledge, only speculation, or so we must reduce all disciplines to mathematical postulates and explanations, and if not, they are viewed as suspect. Says Descartes, “In the subjects we propose to investigate, our inquiries should be directed, not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce; for knowledge is not won in any other way.”( Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, 225) That is, unlike Pascal, Descartes emphasized the throwing-off of tradition and previous generations as a way of knowing, leaving the philosopher alone with reason only to discover truth. Where then is a place for history, literature, or the arts in an educational program? Since these cannot lead to any kind of certain knowledge, they are at best seen as interesting trivialities. That is, a philosophical shift in the general view of truth and knowledge may also be driving these educational changes.

Third, while the current driving force of these changes may be an utilitarian view of education, the underlying assumptions of American Pragmatism must certainly be explored as an influence. Though many would trace these changes in American education back to John Dewey, Dewey himself was heavily influenced by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. According to Spencer the purpose of education is to prepare children for “self-preservation, securing the necessaries of life, bringing up children well, [and] producing good citizens.” (Egan, Getting It Wrong, 116) The means to achieve this would be the sciences. Accordingly, a new curriculum would be necessary to meet this aim. The criteria for selecting fields of study then would be their utility in preparing the student for these goals. “So the prevailing curriculum based on Greek, Latin, and history was to be swept away.” (Ibid.) What use would a child have for declining Greek nouns, conjugating Latin verbs, or knowing when the Battle of Hastings occurred in getting a job or raising a family?

From this educational shift, history was replaced with general social studies, the arts with more practical arts of the home and everyday life, and literature with science and technology studies. We have today, incorporated Spencer’s view of education wholesale so that his views of education are now mainstream. The more traditional curriculum is left for those who can afford private schools, while middle and poorer-class students are relegated to a crass utilitarian education:

An implication of Spencer’s writing was that the classics should disappear from the experience of middle-class student and should have no role for the increasing numbers of children from the lower classes who were filling the expanding state schools…Today, of course, the educational establishment—almost entirely without any knowledge of what once was the backbone or staple of education and almost invariably ignorant of classical languages—takes it for granted that the classics should be treated as an occasional and exotic option for only a few students. (Ibid., 120-121)

As noted, the champion of this kind of education in the United States was John Dewey. Dewey emphasized education as a kind of vocational activity. In order to function best in society, Dewey focuses his curriculum on “thinking skills” while de-emphasizing “information.” That is, it is more important that the student think than what the student thinks about. After all, the educator cannot predict what vocation their students will pursue, and so cannot predict what kinds of information will be useful to them. So, once again there is a replacing of history and culture with pragmatic skills. Though Dewey himself found utility in the studying and teaching of history, those who came after him found it of little use.

What then of those uses of history covered previously? How might a student come to think without something to think about? How might a student come to understand the society in which they live? How might a student learn to plan for the future? How might a student be formed morally? All these questions are treated as relatively unimportant on an utilitarian view of education. Yet, as I will examine in my final posted, it is precisely the lack of these functions provided by history that prevents utilitarian education from meeting its goals.

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge
Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs and Disciplines
Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles
Part IIId: History Helps in Moral Formation