Final exams start tomorrow. Nine months ago I challenged my students with this phrase: “I don’t expect you to think like me, but I do expect you to think!” Tonight, I wonder not just how much they learned, but also what they learned.
Too often the social sciences place too much emphasis on facts alone. Describe the three regions of North Carolina. Name the seven continents and four oceans. Define the three eras of human history. List the American Presidents. Explain the steps a bill takes to become a law. These facts may be deemed important for the test, but are they actually significant for life? Do not ideas and concepts trump facts and minutiae? For example, which matters more: knowing the date a war began, or knowing the causes that led to war?
As historians, we are ultimately the keepers of philosophy. We preserve the why and the wherefore for future generations. So while I earnestly hope my students have retained the required facts, I also hope they learned to be better citizens of the world.
Geography should teach more than continents, climates, and cultures. It should impart a sense of place and belonging, an understanding of where we fit in the rich tapestry of nations. Imagination should ignite some spark of interest to visit new lands, acquire a new language, meet new people, and taste new food. Even if one must be an armchair traveler with Rick Steves or Burt Wolf, don’t just hang on for the ride.
History is more than a never-ending list of people, places, and philosophies. It is a study in how man has answered those questions posed by Aristotle and Plato so many centuries ago: what is the best way to live and how does one live that life? In understanding how man has answered these questions in the past we come to understand the present world around us. It is only by understanding the world around us that we can strive to make it better.
Ultimately, the exams I give will only test my students’ memory skills. Their lives will show what they have learned.