“The biggest problem with history teaching now is there isn’t enough of it.”
So said Eric Eric Foner, among the nation’s most respected and award-winning historians, when he teleconferenced with David Cutler’s history students—and about 40 other parents, teachers and alumni—earlier this morning, while answering questions about his life, career, and thoughts about education.
The DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2011 book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. His 1988 masterpiece, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, breathed new life into a previously neglected period in American history, while also establishing himself as the topic’s leading authority.
“Many states have been reducing the amount of history that is required to get a high school diploma,” Foner said. “My own state New York has done that, so I’m not just pointing my finger at other states. In New York, you can go through high school and never encounter the American Revolution.”
Karly Hamilton ’21 asked Foner his thoughts on standardized tests, and whether they restrict teachers from exploring the past more deeply.
“I don’t much like standardized tests, especially for history,” Foner said. “Maybe for math, where there is a correct answer and an incorrect answer. But in history, so much of history is interpretation. Questions about history that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are pretty unimportant questions. It’s hard to deal with the changing interpretations of the Progressive Era in a standardized test. Those tests do encourage teaching to the test—teaching to try to psych out what will be on the test, rather than how to think critically and creatively, and independently about history.”
Gianni Thompson ’21 asked Foner about the importance of studying diverse people and subjects.
“One of the concepts about history that I think is misleading, that a lot of Americans adhere to, is this notion what we call ‘American exceptionalism,’ that the United States is really so different from other countries that we have nothing to learn from them. This promotes insularity or a lack of knowledge of the world. So, I think yes, there should certainly be diversity in the whole curriculum, not in one course necessarily. But students coming out of high school should know something more about the rest of the world, and about what is and is not unique about the United States.”
Cutler offered heartfelt introductory remarks about Foner.
“I can’t overstate the lasting influence that Prof. Foner has had on my learning and career. He is, hands down, my greatest academic hero and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”