Tom Birmingham was one of the fathers of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. He writes here that the teaching of history has always been considered a foundational part of education in Massachusetts, the birthplace of public schooling. History is fundamental to citizenship, and citizenship is the main purpose of public schooling.

He writes:

“ABOUT 25 YEARS AGO, as a member of the Massachusetts Senate, I co-authored the Massachusetts Education Reform Act. Drafting a complex bill with such far-reaching consequences requires significant compromise, but one thing my counterparts in the House of Representatives and then-Gov. Bill Weld all agreed upon was the importance of educating students about our nation’s history.

“As a result, the law explicitly requires instruction about the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the US Constitution. We also made passage of a US history test a high school graduation requirement.

“Sadly, subsequent generations of political leaders have not shared our view of the importance of US history. It is now becoming an afterthought in too many of our public schools.

“The Founding Fathers believed that to exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship, Americans had to understand our history and its seminal documents. They also saw it as the role of public schools to pass on what James Madison called “the political religion of the nation” to its children. As the great educational standards expert E.D. Hirsch said, “The aim of schooling was not just to Americanize the immigrants, but also to Americanize the Americans.”

“Without this, they believed the new nation itself might dissolve. They had good reason: Until then internal dissension had brought down every previous republic.

“According to Professor Hirsch, the public school curriculum should be based on acquiring wide background knowledge, not just learning how to learn. This belief is diametrically opposed to the view held by many that the main purpose of public education should merely be to prepare students for the workforce. As it turns out, the evidence is fairly strong that students who receive a broad liberal arts education also tend to do better financially than those taught a narrower curriculum focused on just training students for a job.

“The role of public schools in creating citizens capable of informed participation in American democracy was particularly important in a pluralistic society like ours. Unlike so many others, our country was not based upon a state religion, ancient boundaries or bloodlines, but instead on a shared system of ideas, principles, and beliefs.”

Some people think that the way to reinvigorate history in the curriculum is to require standardized history tests. I disagree. History must be taught with questions, discussions, debates, theories, and curiosity. Standardized tests would reduce history to nothing more than facts. Facts matter, but what makes history exciting is the quest and the questions, the controversies and the uncertainty.