Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Some thoughts about history education



My theory on learning history is that most people are interested in the subject - they just don't all realize it.



People don't always learn the history they're taught in school, perhaps because it is sometimes not taught as well as it could be. My experience with history teachers has generally been good, but I can think of three exceptions to this. Two of them were men that taught my American history class in high school, and one was a woman who I took multiple classes from in college. Looking back on it, I don't think they did the subject justice. My experience in that woman's classes was part of what convinced me not to major in history. Lest my friends tell me not to judge a subject by one teacher, that's not what I did; but history with her was often unpleasant. She was a hard taskmaster who made the subject much harder than it needed to be, assigning a lot of busy work to build her self-image as a "tough" teacher, who was actually tough, but for all the wrong reasons. (I've had some other professors that were quite good - I don't mean to paint all of them as being like her.)

I actually tutored a student in American history, and we got to know each other very well as we worked together throughout the semester. Most college history classes involve a lot of reading and writing, and this class was no exception. I am a fan of history class content, and think there are some parts of it that everyone should know; but I remarked to this student one day that the content of the class is not nearly as important as learning how to read and write at a high level. Most people learn how to read and write before entering college, but college classes in history (and the humanities in general) are good at honing those skills to high levels. High school courses tend to be focused on content, and perhaps rightfully so; but college classes do better at teaching the content by requiring high amounts of reading and writing to reinforce them. Not all of this reading and writing is constructive (I think here of that professor I mentioned), but some of it is. The best college classes get you to learn a lot through reading, and communicate it through writing to show you've learned it.


Vietnam War protest, 1967


Psychedelic VW bug

But not all history classes are created equal, and not all history professors are made alike. So much of history these days is focused on social history and labor history, of women's rights and persecuted minorities, that some other important topics are often neglected. To a large extent, the corrosive influence of liberal politics is to blame; and American history since the 1960's often becomes nothing but a series of protest movements and left-wing social causes. Not that these things aren't important or a part of the history, but there's more to these periods than hippies and tye-dye shirts. Not many today could tell you about the Cuban Missile Crisis (an important event of the 1960's), and it's not their fault; because the educational system is to blame. It focuses on protests and changing morality to the exclusion of important things like the economy and foreign policy, and some important things about these post-1960's periods (not to mention other periods) get lost.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence (1776)


Abraham Lincoln

One area of controversy in history is emphasis on names and dates. Some names and dates are important and should be known - everyone should know July 4, 1776; and the name "Abraham Lincoln" should be familiar to all. But some history teachers take memorizing these to excess. In my posts about the anniversaries of historical events, I make sure to mention the year for complete date information; but the focus is on what happened, and why it was important. The danger of focusing exclusively on names and dates is that the human story of what happened is often lost. I don't mind professors teaching people that the attack on Pearl Harbor was December 7, 1941; but the specific date of the attack is not nearly so important as what happened. Why did the Japanese attack? Why was the American fleet so ill-prepared? What did Pearl Harbor do to the country, and to the world? If the only test question about Pearl Harbor is what date it happened on, much of the vital human story of the event is lost. Even the details about breaking the Japanese codes can be dramatic and crucial, and people will remember that history a lot longer if you bring it to life with human details.


There has been much discussion about the way Hollywood often misinforms people about history, and the criticisms of the institution are often well-founded. But along with the bad, there is also some good done in Hollywood history. "Tora! Tora! Tora!," for example, is a fine movie; and while popular media like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers" have ratings that I can't see, they help show that there is still popular interest in history when it's told right. There are many boring academia types who speak in excessive jargon and ostentation, but there are also remarkable storytellers like Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough. They wipe the dust off of these long-ago events, and tell them the way they should be told - as fascinating human stories, rife with personal interest and human drama.


Surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, 1865


D-Day invasion at Normandy, 1944

That's what often gets lost in the teaching of history, is the human interest of what happened. As I've learned, a picture can go a long way towards bringing the story to life - whether it's a painting of Grant and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, or a battle photograph of the D-Day invasion. It's said that my generation has aversion to black-and-white photography, and there is some truth in this. But behold the fellow young adults who click the "Like" button on my status about Pearl Harbor, with the dramatic picture of the USS Arizona as she is sinking; and one feels like these visual records of the past still have power to grab people.


USS Arizona sinking at Pearl Harbor, 1941

"People aren't interested in history." "Young people won't look at anything besides color." Well, maybe - but my theory is that when it's told right, most people are still interested in history. They don't all realize it, and some with poor history teachers even conclude the opposite is true. But look at the popular success of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," with the movie posters and DVD covers having a black-and-white picture of their main actor; and one gets the feeling that history (even old history) is still in style.


The history interest is there - we just don't always notice it.

Why the distant past isn't talked about


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