My opinion of the methods used to teach most subjects in schools is pretty low. Among the poorly taught subjects, however, history stands out as one of the most tragic. History should be a rich, fascinating field, full of adventure, intrigue, and deep questions about the nature of humanity. Instead, it is typically presented as a parade of pseudo-facts, names, and dates given as absolutes to be memorized. Fortunately, the story of history is so intrinsically compelling that some escape school still enjoying it.
My own experience is that my junior high and high school history teachers were almost all primarily athletics coaches, with barely a passing interest in history. My typical history lesson consisted of sitting in class and being instructed to copy the first fifty problems out of the back of the current chapter and write answers in complete sentences. These sentences were expected to be lifted directly from the chapter, so that the entire exercise became one of copying words from a book onto paper without any need for understanding. In retrospect, the history textbooks used in schools are bad enough that I really wasn’t missing much.
I emerged from high school with the idea that history was basically a boring subject, consisting of memorizing a large set of facts. This persisted through my freshman level history classes, which although somewhat better, still relied on memorizing and regurgitating facts and dates. At least we got to order the regurgitated facts into a banal-sounding three paragraph essays… a modest improvement. In the end, it was a last minute, whimsical decision that saved me. Along with a couple of friends, I decided to enroll in a Junior level course on the birth of Europe for my second history credit. It changed the course of my education and led to a minor in history, along with some graduate-level courses that I enjoyed although they did not apply to any degree. What changed?
Think about the richness, diversity of opinion, and complexity in today’s political environment. It is difficult to find two pundits who agree on much of anything about why we’re in Afghanistan, whether the current Keynesian approach to our economic crisis is working, and on and on. Now, imagine that all evidence of our civilization is lost to time, except one book. Let’s pick one by a political writer who you vehemently disagree with. Now, think about how the events of our time will be interpreted by students of the future, studying this lone text as evidence for our civilization. Not a happy thought…
In fact, this is very close to the true situation when we study ancient history, with the picture only slightly improving as we move forward in history. Isn’t it interesting that the closer we get to the present, the more controversy is presented in the textbook? When I was in school, the Vietnam War was presented as very controversial. The text was hesitant to present much detail or even opinion. There were too many people with the event fresh in their memory who would dispute almost anything written, one way or the other. Do we really believe that the Peloponnesian War was any less controversial? Although we know far fewer facts about that conflict, it is presented much more authoritatively in textbooks.
I recall my dismay as an adult, after reading several recent books presenting new research on the Vikings, watching a program from the History Channel on the same topic. It amazed me that probably over half of the “facts” presented in the program were either provably wrong or greatly disputed. I’m not referring to details related to new, or ongoing research. Much of the “information” presented has never been considered correct as far as I can tell. My opinion is that most people watching the program would actually know less about the Vikings than they did beforehand. Unfortunately, their confidence in the false information would go up. After all, if you can’t trust the History Channel, who can you trust?
Much of what I’ve come to appreciate about the study of history is well presented in the book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past by Sam Wineburg. I highly recommend this book to anyone involved in teaching children, or just interested in learning more about history. Wineburg presents several interesting studies on the way that people think about and teach history. For example, given a series of historical texts ranging from high school textbooks to primary sources, subjects were asked to rank their reliability. Interestingly, the rankings of students and history professors were almost completely inverted. Students tended to rate the simple “fact-oriented” language and clear presentation of the text books as more reliable, whereas historians valued the original sources. Wineburg explores this and other phenomena and why people think about history the way they do.
History has the potential to be one of the most interesting and dynamic subjects in the curriculum. Given the extremely low recall rate and historical literacy of people currently coming out of the school systems, there isn’t much risk in trying something different. I believe that the study of history must be intermingled with the study of epistemology and historiography. Uncertainty makes people uncomfortable, but when studying history the most honest conclusion is often that we don’t know exactly what happened, and may never. This is frequently true about even simple facts such as dates and places, and is almost always true when talking about human motivations. Children should see this uncertainty and be taught to think and question when reading different accounts. Don’t be afraid to present your opinion, but be open about the fact that it is only an opinion and do your best to explain why you hold it. One of the worst sins of modern textbooks is that they pretend to present a “neutral” p0int of view, all the while giving extremely loaded descriptions.
Get started by reading Historical Thinking, and I’ll talk more about my current approaches to teaching history in future posts. I’m still searching for good resources and methods, and I’ll try to cover the best here.