Rote memorization of facts adds to collective cluelessness

As fans of talk-show host Jay Leno’s man-on-the-street interviews know, Americans suffer from a national epidemic of historical and civic ignorance. But just because most Americans know more about “American Idol” than they do about American government doesn’t necessarily mean it’s entirely their fault.

Americans’ historical apathy is also an indictment of the way history is taught in grades K-12, according to a University of Illinois professor who studies and teaches historical instruction.

Brenda M. Trofanenko, a professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, says that teaching history by rote – that is, by having students memorize historical dates and then testing them on how well they can regurgitate that data on a test – is a pedagogical method guaranteed to get students to tune out and add to our collective civic and historical cluelessness…

“I agree that there should be a base knowledge that students need to know about their country and their community affiliations,” she said. “But its relevance lies not just in knowing historical fact but being able to see what can be gleaned from historical inquiry, including cause and effect, progress and decline, and historical significance. You still have to know what happened, but you also have to be able to put it into a larger context of what was happening at the time, why it was happening, and what relevance it has to the current day.”


Facts and important historical dates, Trofanenko said, are easily measured and quantifiable through tests, which is why they remain so popular in elementary and secondary education. The emphasis on memorizing facts and dates has its roots in standardized testing and has only been given further pedagogical credence by the accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind law…

Since the federal government uses only math and reading scores to measure a school’s progress, there’s little incentive for schools to teach students non-tested subjects such as history. But history, according to Trofanenko, “is just as important as everything else. Everything is set in time, and experiences typically change in significance over time.”

The recently departed nutball wizard not only failed at leading our education system towards independent thought, he and his claque refused to provide funding adequate even to the dribble-glass style of learning they supported.

Professor Trofanenko sounds like she’s on the right track. Whether she wanders to the Left or Right in the colorization of students learning to construct and analyze isn’t as important at undergraduate levels. IMHO. Debate and thorough deconstruction need to build upon an understanding of context, a foundation of breadth that she sounds like encouraging.

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