Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Save the Teaching American History Grants

Here is an op-ed piece I wrote last week in response to the call by the National Coalition on History to help save the Teaching American History grant program.  It was never published and, to be honest, I am not sure if it is now too late to express dissatisfaction with Congress's decision to put this program on the chopping block. (Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this one).  I have already written to both my U.S. Senators about this and have received form e-mails back.  So, I put this piece out there in the hopes that it might be picked up by someone, somewhere or make some kind of difference.  Feel free to pass it along to your senator!


Let’s Save the Teaching American History Grants!
By John Fea
If we are serious about ending the culture wars, strengthening education, and teaching a new generation of citizens that they are part of something larger than themselves, then we need to urge the Senate to continue to fund the Teaching American History (TAH) grants program.

Since 2002, the TAH program has allocated nearly $1 billion in federal funds to school districts for the purpose of improving the teaching of American history.  The program was the brainchild of the late West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, who used his influence in Congress to make sure that it was funded. Since then it has received bipartisan support and, by all indicators, it has been a great success.

As a historian who has worked with several districts that have received TAH grants, I can attest to the program’s effectiveness.  School districts partner with area colleges, historical societies, or institutes such as New York’s Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, to prepare a grant proposal that, if accepted, could infuse their school districts with $1 million designed explicitly for teacher training in American history.

Grant recipients use the money to develop workshops, seminars, and field trips for American history teachers.  Some hire noted historians from around the country to bring American history content and history-related pedagogy expertise to teachers who are desperately in need of professional development.  The focus is on learning how to make the past come alive for students through the use of primary sources—documents written during the time period under consideration.

In 2008, I had the privilege of spending three days with high school history teachers from Bledsoe County, TN.  Bledsoe County is not an easy place to get to.  After flying into Chattanooga, I rented a car and drove about an hour or so into the Appalachian Mountains.  The town had no hotels and only a few small restaurants.  I stayed at a “bed and breakfast,” which seemed to be little more than the home of a local woman with few spare bedrooms in her house. This place was remote.

Yet the teachers I encountered in Bledsoe County were eager to learn.  They were inspiring.  Not only were they fully engaged with the content I taught them, but it was clear that they were willing to work together—as a community of teacher-educators who would be meeting with each other for several years—to improve American history education in the their region.

I could share similar stories from rural northeast Louisiana, Raleigh, North Carolina, and inner-city Minneapolis and Milwaukee, to name a few of the place where I have worked with this program.

Why is it so important that we make the improvement of American history teaching such a high priority?

First, history offers a unique way of thinking about the world and one’s place within it that is unlike any other discipline.  When taught well, it requires students to see themselves as part of something larger than the present moment in which they live. 

Learning American history helps to produce citizens not by making them memorize dates and facts, but by teaching them that they—as the next generation of American leadership—have a responsibility to care for the nation in the way that others have done before them.  The writer Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”

When students encounter the past, they learn virtues such as empathy for those who are different. They learn humility as they see themselves as part of a national past that has played out through time.  Aren’t these at least some of the virtues that we want the next generation of Americans to possess? 

At the moment, the House of Representatives has already targeted the Teaching American History Program for elimination. But the Senate is drafting their Fiscal Year 2011 funding bill right now.  In other words, it is still possible to save these programs if we are willing to write our United States Senators and urge them to do something about preserving this vital program.

We live, of course, in difficult economic times.  Many of the critiques of excessive government spending have been legitimate.  Reform-minded citizens have appealed to American history—the founding fathers, the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party—to promote their agenda.  (Didn’t the current Congress begin its new session with the reading of the Constitution?)  I wonder if the next generation can continue to be such active citizens without a thorough knowledge of our past.  Let’s do something about this.

John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA and is the author of  Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  He blogs daily at www.philipvickersfithian.com

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