Guest Post by Carla of rightsideoftruth
Unfortunately, if you were to ask your average middle or high school student what their favorite subject in school is, it is likely very few would mention history. And if you were to ask their least favorite subject, history would surely rank along with math or language as one of the top responses. Most students would probably point to the cumbersome activities of memorizing dates, remembering people’s names and mindlessly regurgitating facts about laws passed, wars fought or treaties signed as the main reason for disliking the subject.
Of course, there are plenty of students out there who like history, but it is likely because they have learned to see past these somewhat tiring aspects of studying history that are actually much less significant than historians consider them to be. Herein lies the problem, though. The way we teach history in much of this country employs this dull, outdated approach. This way of teaching can produce dangerous ignorance about the complexity of problems past, encouraging rash decision making in the present.
So as the world and its problems get more complex, and as more complex solutions are needed to overcome the obstacles we face, let’s see what we can learn from the way we teach history to see if we know enough about what has already happened to be properly prepared for what is yet to come.
Stories Over Context
Increased pressure from standardized tests and from parents demanding their students focus on math and science (due to their demand in the job market) has led to an increasingly narrow approach to teaching history. The idea is to arm students with just enough to be able to pass their exams without going into so much depth that might distract them from “more important” subjects.
A good example of this is Brooklyn schools that don’t teach about any American historical figure other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. until at least the fourth grade. Dr. King’s story is certainly an important part of American history, but its significance is derived from a rich, troubling history of racial hatred and segregation dating back to the beginnings of European colonization in Africa and the subsequent African slave trade that developed over the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Leaving out this information deprives Dr. King’s work of its context, watering down the significance of the movement and the challenges it overcame.
The effects of this approach can be felt on a daily basis. Very few, if any, media outlets genuinely take the time to place the issues of the day in the necessary context, which is concerning because many consider journalism to be the unrevised first draft of history. More interested in eye-popping headlines to draw readers and viewers, the media is replicating this shallow approach to the world around us, damaging our ability to approach problems with the necessary depth and detail to produce real solutions.
War, War and More War!
Perhaps one of the more troubling aspects of the way we teach American history is the emphasis placed on war. Now, in some respects, this is justified—the U.S. has spent most of its existence at war with at least one other nation—but the American story is sharply punctuated by war, and these events are often used as turning points around which curriculums are based.
Studying war is not in and of itself the issue; we must understand the sources of conflict to hope to prevent them in the future. However, what is an issue is the way the U.S. is often portrayed in these conflicts. History books like to flaunt the valor of past military leaders as being the champions of some universally adopted American vision, but very few pay much attention to the nature of these conflicts and their implications.
To see this, one need not look further than the so-called “Manifest Destiny” wars fought throughout the 19th century. This idea that occupying the entire American continent “from sea to shining sea” was the divine right of the United States is essentially just accepted as a fact of life. Not much attention is paid to the strong role religion played in justifying the corralling into reservations and killing of countless Native Americans so that America could claim sovereignty over lands never before subjected to Western understandings of private property.
The “Native American problem” is certainly addressed in most history classes, but more as a necessary evil than as a representation of the American exceptionalism that has come to dominate much of America’s modern value system. The words “from sea to shining sea” are still sung proudly by millions of Americans in “America, the Beautiful” without much understanding as to how former U.S. governments were able to bring California and Massachusetts under the same flag—war.
The consequences of this are rather significant. Essentially, by giving so much focus to war and by propagating such widespread acceptance of it, we are normalizing the idea of international conflict. To most Americans, being at war is a simple fact of life, and we understand part of our patriotic duty is to support the troops in all they do. Regardless of how you feel about the troops, the fact there is very little tolerance given to questioning the military comes from America’s love affair with war, the seeds of which are planted early on in our collective psyche through the teaching of history.
Despite being a discipline dedicated to the past, history can often be rather prophetic. The idea is that we must learn from past mistakes to prevent them from occurring again and understand previous triumphs so as to promote the same approach moving forward.
So looking forward at history education in the U.S., is change on the way? Some say yes. For example, the Common Core has been implemented across the country, and teachers and principals are grappling with how to implement it. In theory, these new standards encourage depth over breadth, pushing teachers to spend more time on one subject so that students have a chance to reach the level of understanding often bypassed with traditional methods. However, the jury is still out as to whether these new standards will have the anticipated effect since teaching in this way will require a heavy investment in teacher training and classroom materials, a contentious issue, to say the least. Nonetheless, the framework is in place.
The other opportunity for change comes from the ever-advancing digital revolution. With so many resources available, and countless ways to access them despite possible restrictions, teachers and students no longer need to rely only on history books to get into issues with more depth. Teachers can assign students to investigate topics they’re interested in to encourage a passionate pursuit of history, or they can incorporate more interactive materials into the classroom to try and fight against the unfair image of history class as being nothing more than a fact-memorization session.
But it is still hard to say what is to come. The increasingly global economy puts less and less emphasis on the skills offered through the careful study of history, and the trend we are seeing does not lend itself to much change. However, perhaps by applying a more critical eye to the way we teach history, we can reveal some of our past mistakes and do what studying history best allows us to do: prevent them from happening again.
What do you think we can learn from the way we teach history? How should we go about changing it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.