Thoughts on Teaching History

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My friend Caleb dropped the first half hour of his edit of our conversation. In it is the part where he observes that we need to be careful about assuming our students have the same type of reaction to history as we do. He said something to the effect that he has to remind himself he was the “weird kid” in class who was super interested in what the teacher was droning on about. I was the same, of course. Always sitting in the front row. Reacting to the professor almost as if we were having a one-on-one conversation. Asking and answering questions.

These are all things we hope to see in our own classes, and sometimes we do. More often though, in my experience, the classroom fills from back to front. Students typically only answer questions when I actually call on them, not when I ask a question of the group. Some students stop coming to class if they determine they will not lose points toward their final grade by not attending (I think they DO lose overall, because they probably retain less from reading the chapter than from the lecture. But I don’t take attendance).

But really, when I think about it, my students are NOT me. Very few of them are even History majors. A larger number are in the Social Studies Education program, preparing to be high school teachers. But most of the students in my surveys (which due to their much higher enrollments means most of my students overall) are checking a “Liberal Education” core requirement box. My surveys fulfill the “History and the Social and Behavioral Sciences” goal. They also fulfill either the “Human Diversity in the United States” goal or the “Global Perspective” goal. They also all help fulfill a “Critical Thinking” requirement, although they aren’t listed as such (pretty much ALL courses at my university supposedly meet this goal, so it isn’t listed on any).

I’ve said several times in the past that I’m very interested in trying to make history relevant to the present for people, and I think about my surveys along these lines. I do think it’s helpful for members of the public to know some basic facts about the past. For me, it’s the same idea as the saying “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Similarly, if you know nothing you can be convinced of anything. This has been one of the big downsides of having all the world’s info on your smartphone, and I suppose ChatGPT may only exacerbate the problem.

In any case, I think it’s important for students to learn some info about the past. Especially some info that challenges the “Master Narrative” they have been taught all their lives. And I’m not just talking about the half-assed social studies I was taught in high school by guys whose first priority was coaching football. Even students who have taken APUS or Concurrent Enrollment “college in the high school” classes have often been “taught to the test”, which requires coverage of a fairly limited range of topics. These ARE, I admit, some of the “must-know” bits of info about our past. But it’s not my goal just to revisit that familiar territory.

What I’d prefer to do is to take students to places they might not otherwise have seen. Like a tour guide that leaves the well-worn path for some interesting side trips. The key to these explorations off the beaten path, though, is that they need to enhance the overall picture and give the traveler a more complete understanding of the territory. And it needs to be relevant to their actual lives. So what can I add to survey-level history that will enhance my students’ understanding AND be relevant to their present lives and futures? A couple of things come to mind:

  • The idea that what happened was not inevitable. Understanding the contingency of the past, I think, may suggest to them that the present and future are similarly “not a done deal”.
  • Awareness of the contested nature of all big social choices. This involves seriously considering the perspectives on both sides of an argument. I’m not expecting students reading a primary source in which a Southerner defends slavery to agree with the author. But I WOULD like them to try to understand why the author thinks so, whether the position is sincerely believed, or whether they are reading a rhetorical rationalization.
  • A sense that the past involves choices made not only by “Great Men” but by people like themselves. How did those people make those choices? How did they make their voices heard? Hopefully, this exposure will suggest to students that they too will have the opportunity (and responsibility) to do the same in their lifetimes.

I was talking with my fellow History faculty yesterday and we agreed there are periods in American History that remind us A LOT of the present moment (we actually agreed that in addition to the first Gilded Age of the 1920s, the decade of the 1840s seems particularly resonant). There’s a limit to how directly you can call attention to those similarities. After all, history only “rhymes”, it doesn’t repeat itself. And it’s a bit anachronistic and “presentist” to make this type of correspondence the one and only focus of a history course. But I do think it’s valuable to connect the dots a bit, especially for general students who are not aspiring historians. And it may be interesting to them, too.