Thursday, September 1, 2011

Does history teaching matter?

At the suggestion of a friend, I've recently become more involved with the social networking site Linkedin. Thus far, I certainly prefer Linkedin to Facebook because the former is focused on professional networking.

As part of this involvement, I joined a few Linkedin discussion groups, including one moderated by the American Historical Association. Mike Maxwell asked in a recent thread: "Does history teaching matter?"

"Yes," I replied, and by that I of course meant ". . . but with some caveats . . ."
    Does history teaching matter? This is the theme of a recent CNN report that I happened across in another discussion group and wish to pass on to the members of this group.
    This is a basic question, isn't it: Is it important for our culture to pass along historical knowledge to future generations? Surely, members of this group would answer in the affirmative, but what about the rest of the country? Evidence from multiples sources suggests the majority view is not favorable. Check the comments at the bottom of the CNN piece to see what I mean.
    So, for those who care about history education, the question must be "How can we make history learning matter to America and particularly to students?" In my view, history education as now practiced is pointless...that is, it doesn't seem to have a point. Sure, it does some of this and some of that, but what is the point really? If we can't give history education a tangible and understandable purpose, we can't blame the public for dismissing it.
    If you think history teaching does matter, you must believe it has a purpose. Please share your thinking: "What is the point of history education?" Seriously, I would like to know.

My reply . . .

From my biased perspective, I certainly do believe that teaching & learning history matters, if the goal is to sustain any kind of quasi-democratic society that is as free as possible from injustices. If this is not the goal, then history as an intellectual discipline need not exist.

In light of the comments above, I find myself being more interested in history as a discipline than in the content of any given historical narrative; that is, teaching the historical method is much more important than trying to get people to memorize dates and the deeds of Rich White Men. I don't consider myself quite naive enough to believe that a person will change her or his mind about something if only given "the facts" (as George Lakoff discusses in his book The Political Mind), but I do hold out the faith that society as a whole will realize increasing benefits the more that its individual members understand and apply the intellectual discipline that history offers (i.e., conduct research to address a given question; back-up one's conclusions with evidence; be open to changing or qualifying one's interpretations).

So, considering the above, I do believe that it is possible to have an international consensus about what "the historical discipline" is, but I don't hold any hope whatsoever that any given historical interpretation will garner an international consensus. The best we can hope for might be to get to a place where people stop killing and repressing one another because of differing interpretations of a given historical question.

My understanding of what the historical discipline can offer is adding nuance and complexity to one's understanding of a topic. Nuance and complexity, unfortunately, seem nearly impossible to measure in standardized tests, and are harder to teach than rote memorization and regurgitation. I just read Mike Wallace's takes (in the mid-1990s in his book Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory) on Ronald Reagan's tenure as President and the 1995 Enola Gay exhibit at the NASM, which provide very clear examples about how certain influential segments of our society react quite negatively to nuanced and complex understandings of history, to the point of repressing or ignoring truths.


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