History exam vs. Service

In my recent exploration of philosophy as a serious career option, I came across the website and digital footprint of Stephen Hicks at Rockford College.  I was positively psyched to see some of the work he's doing and read some of his writing.

And then I came across the following post on his blog:

Last weekend we went to a school-sponsored Santa Shop. The idea of the Santa Shop is that while the parents eat cookies and sip punch and listen to carols, volunteers help the kids do their Christmas shopping and wrapping so that the parents and siblings won’t know what they’re getting until the big day.

As we dropped our son off, we noticed that a large number of the volunteers seemed to be high-school aged, and shortly after that I ran into a former student who is now a history teacher at a well-regarded high school in the area. During the ensuing conversation, I remarked on the many high-school volunteers helping out, and the history teacher told me that most were students from his class.

It turns out, he explained, that he thought many of his students seemed stressed about their end-of-term history essays. So he decided to give them an option: Either (a) do the paper or (b) volunteer for a day at the Santa Shop.

Hmmm …. I found myself thinking: Equivalent academic credit for writing a history essay and helping kids buy and wrap gifts. (Insert sarcastic remark here.)

Which naturally raises the question of how much such teaching explains the dismal results from surveys of students’ historical knowledge such as this, this, and this. (links are live in original)

And I can’t help but wonder, as I work my way through grading a stack of essays and exams this week, whether part of the teacher’s calculation was to avoid having to read and evaluate those papers. Mutual accommodation reached by teacher and students, and the downward spiral continues.

Hmm indeed!

There are many problems with Hicks' reflection but the one that stands out to me the most can be summarized as = knowledge of history as demonstrated on an exam > helping others.  Hmm.

So, just to be sure, high school students doing something for others is the reason why students have a lack of historical knowledge?

What about writing a paper in a history course demonstrates academic credit?  Does paper written = historical knowledge?

Beyond that - and I am going out on a limb a bit - does historical knowledge really equate or point to something?  I mean, I'm as embarrassed as the next guy when some late night talk show host finds some random person on the street and asks them who the 23rd President of the United States was and they say Prince Charles.

But you know what?

I am perfectly okay with students who don't know their dates and names if they have compassion and an attitude/ethic of service.

I'm not totally done with Hicks - I'm still intrigued to learn more about him and his work.  This reflection makes me pause, however, considering he also teaches a course in the philosophy of education.



  1. You raise interesting questions and I'm glad that you don't jump to an automatic conclusion about this Mr. Hicks. There are many things that could be at play (he may have had plenty of tests & essays earlier on in the semester, for example) and really we don't know the exact situation of this specific class.

    The factory model of education that exists in N. America is very limited in what it produces because curricula have been designed for verifiable/testable outcomes. When teachers try something original, in order to support their students in other, non-testable ways, they are often criticized, and while it is important to set standards, not all 'good' lessons come from a book.

  2. Well... Where to begin. I think I take more issue with Mr. Hicks criticism than you do. There is rarely a course in the high school curriculum called, "history," rather it is often embedded in a comprehensive social studies curriculum.

    Given that there is an apparent end of semester exam, the substitution of a history paper with an actual example of social studies is a very valid point.

    Beyond that, the study of history is to understand where we have been, so that we may know where we are going. Student's need not have a litany of simple facts in their minds, but they need to have some facts, or at least have an ability to uncover truth.

    Case in point: We are currently in the process of arming small militia's in the middle east to help us fight an insurgent army. An insurgent army that any historian worth his salt will remind you was armed by the united states to help fend off... wait.. what? No... We can't be repeating ourselves this quickly!


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