An Historical Dilemma

Clio Muse
Sing, O Muse . . .

Every subject has its challenges, but history may be the most challenging of all.

There’s always more history. I can think of no other subject where this is true.

High school math – at least what I’ve seen of it – hasn’t changed much since I learned it 10+ years ago. Maybe the method has changed, but the ideas haven’t.

Science has made breakthroughs, clarifications, and corrections. This means that theories and hypotheses – and therefore formulas – have changed, but science generally doesn’t ask you to learn how things were done “in the old days.” At least, it doesn’t require you to have a practical, working knowledge of the old ways. Which is a shame, because once the technological apocalypse hits there will be no-one with the knowledge to rebuild society as we know it. Who needs time travel? It’s back the the Middle Ages (or Early Renaissance)! But that’s a different topic for a different time.

Melancholia I
And on your right, you’ll see the broken instruments of human knowledge . . . 

Melencolia I (Albrecht Dürer, 1514)

English hasn’t changed much, either. New authors may replace old ones, new words come into the vernacular and others fall out, and the way in which we communicate may vary, but English – as it is taught – remains largely unchanged from year to year.

History is not so – more is added to it every day and it all builds on what has happened before. For example, I cannot expect my students to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict without also understanding the origins of those particular people groups, the establishment of ancient Israel, the formation of Judaism and Islam, the Israeli diaspora under Roman rule, the re-creation of a modern Israeli state in 1948, and the various attempts (and failures) at co-existence since that time. How do you condense and revise to give an accurate overview without becoming swamped? Many teachers I know teach on themes or hit what they call “the highlights”. Some school districts have begun to expand the history requirements for graduation, making history a multi-year class (or multi-semester for those on block schedules). However, that doesn’t really solve that problem that . . .

And here is another point at which I disagree with the way in which you book presents . . .

Stuff You Missed in History Class
An excellent podcast for supplemental material!

Some history is going to be cut. How do we decide what to leave out? What to expand? What to assign for individual research? Granted, this may vary from state to state, from district to district, and from class to class, but Common Core (like it or not) will change that. Who’s to decide what is important and what’s not. Isn’t it all important? Once we’ve decided what to cut and what to leave in we’re left wondering . . .

How do we teach the “truth” of history? Like science, history cannot necessarily deal with “truth” (for a given value of “truth”). We can use primary sources and make assumptions, but even if we were to possess a time machine with which to view history our perceptions would be colored by our cultural prejudices and biases. Textbooks often present information in such a way to make it appear that history had to happen a certain way, that there is a linear cause-and-effect of events, and that there is a clear black and white morality of people and events. Seldom is that the case. Many times I end up providing my students with supplemental materials – primary sources when possible – so they can compare the claims of their book with other viewpoints and learn to base an opinion on logical application of all available facts. At least, that’s my goal. Success depends on the student. As the old saying goes, you only get out of an education what you are willing to put into it.

Revisionist History 1

Don’t get me wrong. I hope you haven’t thought I’ve been complaining all this time. I’m merely pointing out what history teachers go through all the time. We watch the news and read magazines because what happens today can quite literally change what we teach tomorrow. And you know what?

I LOVE IT

[a special shout-out to Phil, Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge for inspiring this post]

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4 thoughts on “An Historical Dilemma

  1. Hey – I came over to check out history and got a surprise. Cool.
    History – real history – is getting scarce. Sad as the stories of humans, society, and civilization are so fascinating. Lucky is the kid whose teacher draws from broad primary sources and presents all angles.
    (Don’t get me started on textbooks – worked there for a bit…they are a for profit industry…not there for the kids’ needs…trust me on this….so many texts, especially science and history, are “updated” in new editions by contract writers …many use WIKI as source..and the result is so distorted/bad that original authors sue to get their names off them)
    After learning to identify broad over-generalizations, slanted word choices, cause and effect, faulty logic, opinion vs fact, students generally enjoy poking around history and comparing sources points of views/conflicting interpretations. Grab hard facts and then saddle up for some great discussions about how, why, and the implications. Real higher level thinking.
    Do wish schools would either combine/run concurrently studies and classes in literature, art, and music – toss in the era’s science theories and discoveries, too. Really connect knowledge instead of compartmentalizing it. It has been done.
    (Rhetoric and mechanics of language best taught with compositions/writings meshed in with the content areas – don’t have command of the information until student can express it in paragraphs…It’s work, but boy, does it work for kids – talk about improvement in skills and thinking ability)
    Avoiding the math discussions here.(although math concepts do emerge during different periods – difficult to run in tandem, though…math has it’s own sequence that need to be followed to a productive end…we will not mention “new math” concepts…)
    Oh, FYI there has been all sorts of odd changes/presentations with English on the secondary level….transformational grammar (one that never should have made it into the public schools – luckily died off fairly quickly)….whole language vs traditional language…Once again, lucky is the kid who’s teacher is intuitive and resourceful to teach what is needed when it is needed in the best format for the group. Pull from all available materials, sources, and methods.
    Bottom line, it all rests on the instructor’s skill and knowledge….pretty much shown by history?
    Have a great week – and year

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    1. Last week I provided my senior-level American Government / Economics section with selections from Marx and Engels since our textbook had boiled things down to Capitalism = Good and Communism = Evil. I think only two or three students took the initiative to actually read the selections, but I can guarantee they’ll be the ones who get the most out of this section.

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      1. That you always get out of something what is put into it… a very difficult lesson to teach – especially by the time they get to senior year.
        So many now are trained to “cut to the chase” – “get to the bottom line” – twitter worthy lengths not realizing others are framing the message and their thoughts…
        There have always been those who took time to analyze – and those who just want the summary/review “sheet for final”, it seems social media/early grades’ teaching methods of chanting and repeating answers has made the latter group larger.
        And too much polarization of one extreme or the other encourages the idea that everything is either black or white when closer examination would show it’s a mix and a little of this and a little of that is preferable to completely one way or the other.
        Thinking for ones self is more difficult, but necessary and important….hard to convince the kids
        Hang in there and thanks for giving them the chance to learn if they want to…it’s the old leading the horse to water thing

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  2. The dilemma of being a history teacher. But you left out the idea that we are teaching the whole world. So it isn’t just about what time periods to teach, it is also where do we focus on the plant? Do we teach the Americas? Or do we focus on the center of Western Civilization? When doing Ancient river civs should be bring in China? As an international teacher I have sat in on many a meeting that l left seething. What does a kid need to know about history by the 12th grade? Do they need a smattering of time or place? Do they need to understand one Civ or many? Argh!

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