Making U.S. History Come Alive for Students

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It has been said that those who don't know history, risk repeating the mistakes of the past. If this statement is true, we may be in trouble -- given that studies show most college seniors cannot name James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. But educators are on the move to bring the subject of U.S. history back from the dead.

For example, did you read in your history class the scandalous tale of President Grover Cleveland who married a young woman barely out of her teens, while he was living in the White House?

Even in the more elevated stories of Washington and Lincoln , there's so much more to learn, if the story is told interestingly and truthfully.

The Exciting American Experience

Prolific author, philosophy scholar, former drug czar, and now the popular radio talk show host of "Morning in America," Bill Bennett says U.S. history should fascinate students.

"I was the secretary of education, I learned that history was our worst subject," he told CBN News. "Our kids do worse in history than they do in reading and math. This is their country. They should know it. They should know the good parts and the bad parts. They certainly know the bad parts, they get that from the newspapers."

Bennett believes the captivating American story should have the eyes of our youth lighting up with interest.

"This is the greatest political story ever told, America. It's the second greatest story of all ever told," he explained. "The Christian story is the greatest story ever told."

History Alive

To regain that greatest of civic stories, Bennett wrote a popular account of U.S. history, America: The Last Best Hope. First appearing as popular books for adults in 2006, the volumes prompted educators to ask for them as school textbooks. The education edition became available in 2008.

Bennett wants them to be an improvement over standard textbooks.

"I looked at the history books. There's a reason our kids don't know history. These books are boring. They are really boring," he said. "They are also politically tendentious, almost all to the left."

U.S. Faced Muslim Attacks Before 9/11

One key way to make history interesting and relevant is by the stories that are chosen. For example, Bennett explains how September 11, 2001 wasn't the first time America faced attacks from Muslims in other countries.

Islamic rulers in North Africa had been raiding ships and enslaving European victims in the Mediterranean for centuries. After our War of Independence, Muslim pirates did the same thing to American ships.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with a representative of the North Africans. Ambassador Rahman Adja told them the Koran justified treating the United States as a nation of infidels "whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave." However, he explained, they could make peace by paying large sums of money.

So, the U.S. government paid them off. By 1800, a chunk of the federal budget under President John Adams went as a bribe to the Muslim rulers of North Africa.

The next year Thomas Jefferson became commander-in-chief. Bennett explains the context of the time.

"These people at this time had enslaved probably a million Europeans and Jefferson says 'we're going to war,'" he said. "You know, 'I'm not going to pay this ransom.' And John Adams says, 'If you fight these people, if you try to fight these people, this is 1800, you'll be fighting them for 200 years.'"

Right or wrong about the wisdom of the action, Adams' words have been prophetic.

"The reason we call these guys the Founding Fathers is they were really smart," Bennett said.

As a scholar of philosophy, Bennett says the ancient Greek thinkers have nothing on our founders as the greatest political minds of the centuries.

Fair and Balanced History

Some critics expected Bennett, a well-known conservative, to give his history narrative a push to the political right. However, the 20 plus historians who looked at his books didn't find that.

Education consultant Rex Bolinger of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research in Indianapolis explained their response.

"To a person, they rated them fair and balanced and very capable of being a very unique narrative textbook," he said. "They did say the companion curriculum needed to be developed."

Bolinger, the project director for Bennett's history series, and his colleagues have done that development work. They agree that those supplemental materials are crucial for classroom success in history.

The project includes a range of online resources for teachers and students. In the mix are debates, maps, summaries, timelines, plays -- one about the battle of Lexington, Mass. -- and multiple teacher guides on topics such as analyzing political cartoons.

The interactive potential and flexibility to meet individual needs were elements which attracted Rochester High School in Indiana to select the series.

Principal Dan Ronk, a former history teacher, found the content appealing as well.

"Traditional textbooks -- that I used -- tried to cram every fact, treaty, war, battle into that book. And it became unreadable. So I was looking for a book that was a story, that students would like and enjoy," he explained.

Tony Stesiak and Dan McCarthy are co-teaching the junior history sections at Rochester this year. McCarthy, an English teacher, will help incorporate American literature into one over-arching history class. Rochester is a "New Tech" school in which appropriate classes such as these are woven together.

Teachers Like History Team Projects

Another New Tech concept is making the schoolroom more like the realities of the workplace. This means the teachers help the students find team projects.

For instance, junior Heather Newcomer and her fellow students are teaching an interactive timeline to eighth graders at the nearby middle school. It will help those students get a better sense of the sequence of Revolutionary War events.

McCarthy likes the approach.

"The students feel there's relevancy there. There's a reason for it," he told CBN News. "As opposed to filling out the bubble sheet on the multiple choice test, we've given them a task, a problem to solve."

Junior Logan Hartz is enjoying history, because teachers treat him more like a trusted employee than a student. Plus, he appreciates Bennett's tale.

"I would love to see more from him. It really is a great book," he exclaimed.

Stesiak also appreciates his school's New Tech approach to a history book that can be read as a computer file or listened to on headphones.

"That wide variety you have all things for all different kinds of learners. Now, we'll still use the text, but we'll also have those options," he said.

For veteran social studies teacher Terry Wright at Southport Presbyterian Christian School in Indianapolis, the interactive materials are useful. Yet he especially appreciates Bennett including the Christian roots of America.

"I don't think he overemphasizes Christianity, he uses it as facts," he said.

Many texts have ignored or distorted the realities of religious faith throughout U.S. history.

Challenging Students With Historical Facts 

Wright is carving out new education territory for the subject of history. He began using the books with eighth graders last year and plans to use them as primary texts next year.

Teacher Scott Backus is doing the same at Tippecanoe Valley Middle School in Akron, Indiana. He's finding the stories provide the basis for challenging his students.

"What if Columbus gave in to the pressure of his crew and went back home? Where would we be? And it opens up an avenue for discussion, for debates, for critical thinking skills," he said.

Reading about the time just before Columbus has Tippecanoe eighth grader Mitch Randall wondering about a Portugese explorer who started taking slaves from Africa.

"I didn't know why he would bring slaves back -- and why would we need them?," he asked.

Fellow eight grader Liz Shepherd is curious about the consequences of slavery.

"I want to learn more about the Civil War, I'm pretty interested in that," she said.

America: The Last Best Hope

Bennett says we do have to face the wrongs in our past head on.

"There are things that have happened in this country that are shameful and we've admitted them. But at the end of the day when you do the balance sheet, I don't think there's much question," he told CBN News.

Bennett says the big picture establishes America as the world's "last best hope," as Abraham Lincoln put it.

Bennett claims there are a number of ways to measure the value of America. One way is the "gates" test.

"When you raise the gates which way do people run?," he asked. "Do they run in or do they run out? A lot of countries you raise the gates and people run out. With us in the United States, you raise the gates and people run in as fast as they can."

Bennett says another way to gauge the importance of the younger generation really knowing U.S. history is to imagine the world without us.

"What would have happened? I know it would have gone down the tubes," he answered. "I'm not sure whether it would have gone down the tubes to Nazism or communism or something. But it would have gone down the tubes. Whether it did or not, it would have been one heck of a lot less interesting place without the United States."

*Originally published September 30, 2009 

Related Links:

Dr. Bill Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope was first published as two volumes in 2006. In 2008, the series came out as textbooks along with curriculum materials. In addition to various writing projects and public speaking, Bennett has his own radio talk show, "Morning in America," heard from 6-9 am ET Monday through Friday.

The history books have a sample education site, Roadmap to The Last Best Hope.

Dr. Rex Bolinger is Project Director for Team Hope and a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.

Terry Wright teaches at Southport Presbyterian Christian School.

Scott Backus teaches at Tippecanoe Valley Middle School, part of Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation.

Dr. Debra Howe is Superintendent for Rochester Community Schools.

Principal Dan Ronk, teacher Dan McCarthy, and teacher Tony Stesiak serve at Rochester High School.

News Extras:

Bennett: The Problems with History Textbooks

Bennett: The Life of Frederick Douglass

Dr. Bennett: Positive Story of America

Dr. Rex Bolinger: History Connection to Identity

Teacher:  How Students Respond to History

School Supt.: New Tech History Concept

HS Teacher:  The Importance of Citizenship

HS Teacher:  The Relevance of History

Teacher:  In-Depth History Important

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