students and history

I’ve been teaching history at the college level for almost 4 years now. I love it and teaching is clearly the job I was born to do, but, like every job, it comes with frustrations. I think almost everybody who pursues a career in education has moments where they despair what their students don’t know when they first walk into the classroom. This article is not that sort of lament. I don’t mind that some of my students don’t know what much about history when I first see them; it is, after all, my job to remedy that situation. What is interesting–and what will be the subject of this article–is how they think about history, and the implications that it might have.

What’s most striking to me about how many of my students think about history is how literally they interpret things. They tend to view actions, processes and eras of the past in extremely literal terms, instilled in them probably by shorthand and shortcuts in the telling of historical narratives that form the basis of what they might know about history. For example, in a U.S. history class, all students at least know who Martin Luther King, Jr. is. What did he do? He gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. What was the effect of this speech? It granted equality to African-Americans. This is the chain of reasoning of many students–not all, of course, but many–when they think about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

You can’t blame them for thinking this. “I Have a Dream” and the 1963 March on Washington are the universal “sound bites” of MLK, which appears in every single documentary they have ever seen on TV that deals with civil rights, probably called out in a little box on a page of their high school history textbook. The absence of connections between historical events like “I Have a Dream” and results, like the incomplete but substantial advances of the African-American freedom struggle, are not visible or relevant in these shorthand narratives. It’s my job to fill in the pieces, to tell them who Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray were, what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was, what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was and how we got it. But, to many of my students, all of this looks like background detail. It can enrich but never challenge that basic, simple, literal narrative. MLK gives speech; African-Americans are free. The connective tissue there seems, to many of them, like trivia.

If this is all you knew about the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s, would it not be natural to conclude that this is essentially all there is to it?

Why history is relevant or why we study it is similarly misunderstood by many students. I’ve observed that many of them, in another example of literal thinking, assume history’s relevance is summed up by the old saying every one of them has heard, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Seen through this lens, the sole value of history is to avoid future mistakes, most often in the realm of political policymaking. My students aren’t alone in thinking this way; I’d venture that many Americans make this assumption. Politicians certainly do. Whenever a politician casually throws around phrases like “appeasement” or “this is how Nazi Germany started,” they’re thinking this way. I don’t know how to push back against that assumption. It’s too hard-wired into people’s thinking, at least people who don’t have an independent interest in history.

Another assumption shared by many people is the assumption that history is static. It is, after all, the study of the past, and you can’t change the past; thus, once you know what happened in the past, there’s nothing more to say about it. Once we “know” why World War II began or why John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, many people assume the book is closed on these subjects, and the work of historians, therefore, is to determine the facts about events not yet fully understood. History, in this view, is rather like mowing a lawn that never grows. The first historian who gets there saves everyone else a lot of work. To students or others who have this assumption, a centuries-long debate about something very complicated–why the Roman Empire fell, for example–seems utterly incomprehensible.

This assumption explains, in an oblique way, the popularity of pseudohistory. If you believe the past is settled and that historians “own” the interpretation of it, it’s tempting to believe that sometimes they have “settled” it carelessly and somebody from the outside can come along and challenge that interpretation with new evidence. We all like to see self-righteous experts proven wrong. Hence, though experts tell us the Egyptians built the Pyramids, it’s much more satisfying to see the Ancient Aliens show on History Channel “prove” those experts wrong and that an exotic, fun-to-believe explanation–alien intervention–built the Pyramids. But this is not how history works. Ancient Aliens is utter, 100% garbage from start to finish, but it seems to be visionary, if you believe that the past is never revisited and historians are more concerned with never being proven wrong than they are with understanding historical truth.

munich aftermath

“We must not let this happen again!” That sort of statement is meaningless unless you know what this is a picture of, but even then, you miss 98% of why it’s important.

In reality, of course, none of these assumptions about history are tenable. The past is not settled. It is revisited constantly, and the battles over what history means are legendary and often unresolvable. We will never “know” why the Roman Empire fell. But it’s the debate over that question that gives that historical event meaning. It would be dry and shallow and useless otherwise.

I don’t for a moment suggest that these assumptions are true of all history students. Some rise quite admirably above them. Those are the students who get it, and who well deserve the A’s they have earned. Not all students are like that, but some are. They’re the ones who make it worthwhile.

These are the challenges I face when I walk into a classroom. It’s not every day I overcome them. But it is every day that I try to.