Why History Classes are Important (And Why they Need to Change)

Let me first say, if any of the BV history teachers are reading, I loved my history classes, they were always one of my favorite classes the last two years, but now, as a senior who’s gone through both AP World History, and AP United States History, while hearing tales from friends about the regular classes, I have issues with how the classes are fundamentally structured.

In August of 2019, in my world history class, we spent several weeks discussing prehistory, hominids and everything before the first civilizations, but at no point was that material going to be on the AP test. Why did we learn it and spend time on it? There’s a really good reason- how early should world history start? Mr. Mathew spent that time on it so we’d have context on a lot more than if we just jumped into it. I think that was a really good decision.

In a similar way, we spent the first few weeks of my APUSH class (at home, mind you) going over the first five chapters, mostly pre-colonization and early colonial history. Ideally, that would’ve actually been our summer homework, but due to quarantine and everything, we didn’t get the textbooks before summer started, and had to use that time at the beginning of the year.

The point of AP classes are, in many cases, not really to actually learn, but to do well on one test that happens all the way in May. Sure, that’s a nihilistic way to look at AP classes, but you actually do spend weeks and weeks preparing for the test, mostly in the form of essay prep and event memorization. Let me rephrase that- for the weeks leading up to the test, all you do is prepare. So really, the timeline is August until whenever the review period starts, that could be two weeks, it could be four. This means your timeline to read the book, to read about pre-colonial America all the way to the dazzling 1990s is greatly up to teacher’s discretion and however long your book is.

Let me describe two perspectives; first, each decade in, or chapter of, history should get about the same amount of time; two, older topics deserve less time to give way for recent, impactful history. In my opinion, too much time and energy is spent on unimportant details and years, that takes away from the more important details. While I completely agree that early American history is important to understanding the entire course of our nation’s life, there ends up being issues. Do I really need to know the economies of the New England colonies, or would that time be better used on the issues of the 1970s?

I’m hoping many of you know John Mulaney. In one of his comedy specials (watch all of them on Netflix if you haven’t), he does this whole bit about writing “happy birthday” on a sign. The joke is that you write a big H, a big A, a big P, then run out of space and rush the last “PY”. Then, you go to do the second line, and forget the lesson you just learned. Mulaney says, “surely more letters will fit in the same space”. This is kind of the attitude history classes have. We spend so, so much time on early history that we end up rushing the last 50 years. I think, and I’d bet you’d all agree that the last 50 years are more important than our first 50. They’re not unimportant, but again, the French and Indian War doesn’t come up in conversation as much as the military industrial complex does, or even the highway system.

So, what am I saying? Where’s the problem starting? How do we solve it? I’m saying we need to realign our view of the importance of certain events in American history. Why, though? For students. Ellen Degeneres (rest in peace; she’s not dead, but her career probably is) has, multiple times, embarrassed teens that don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone. Gen Z is being given this “stupid” reputation, when we’re just uneducated in what really matters. Who cares if we need to know how to use a rotary phone? In the same vein, who cares if we need to know the logging and fishing economy of Rhode Island c. 1760? Important, maybe, but not the most important thing. Where’s the problem start? Maybe with our class. Maybe with the design of our textbook. Maybe with the AP tests we spend all year prepping for. And maybe, just maybe (most definitely), with the College Board. How do we go about solving it? It’s hard to say. New textbooks? Maybe. Changing when we start reviewing, and how much learning we do unrelated to the book? Might also work. I really don’t know what to do, since it all goes back to the AP test.

The history classes at BV are amazing, and you all should spend time really learning history. That being said, as you might be able to see, we end up rushing education on recent history, for numerous reasons, when that has much more of an impact on people than we’d imagine. In actuality, the last 30 years aren’t included on AP tests because of the political implications they still have, and while I agree we shouldn’t be tested on current political issues, it’s still history that we need to learn if we want to be educated, functioning members of society, but due to the schedule, textbook, College Board’s standards, or end of the year junioritis, we end up missing a large chunk of history that is ongoing and still affecting us. Students shouldn’t have to be history buffs or overachievers to know about Jimmy Carter or the Iran Contra Affair, but that ends up being the case, in both AP and Regular history classes. AP runs out of time, and regular slows to an early halt.

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