Has the U.S. education system lost the ability to teach the country’s own history?

The education scholar and historian discusses how the U.S. education system has failed the country, and how we can help our children recover it.

“There’s no other way to interpret our moment other than as an epic failure of education.”

It’s the middle of November, and Penn GSE education historian Jonathan Zimmerman is not in the mood to steer conversation toward his latest book. “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America” is his eighth. The title’s final word—America—furnishes the link to all the others. From a history of one-room schoolhouses, to separate histories of alcohol and sex education, to an exploration of US campus politics, to a history of American teachers abroad, Zimmerman’s bibliography is above all else an examination of the US republic. And in the bile-spattered, venom-splashed, conspiracy-stained wake of the 2020 election, he laments the state of the union.

Caricature drawing of historical figures including Rosa Parks, MLK, Ben Franklin, an Indigenous person, sitting at classroom desks raising their hands.
Image: David Hollenbach

“It’s not the ‘fault’ of teachers,” he continues—dispatching with the customary scapegoat of much education-reform discourse (and one that has its own lengthy history). “I’m talking about education writ large.” Which has failed, he contends, on two fronts.

“First of all, we haven’t taught people how to discriminate between information and disinformation.”

That ability, and the discipline to exercise it, “is at the heart of all intellectual activity—and it’s at the heart of democracy,” says Zimmerman, who is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education in Penn’s Graduate School of Education. For instance, “You have to be able to discriminate between ‘vaccines keep you safe’ or ‘vaccines give you autism.’

“And it’s not just a Democratic/Republican thing—it really isn’t,” he adds. “There is a war on science, there is a war on expertise, there is this inability to discriminate—but I think it’s a slur to call it Republican,” Zimmerman says.

The second failure clasps hands with the first: “We haven’t taught people to engage across their differences. And to me that’s also an educational problem.” 

This story is by Trey Popp. Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.