Boring History.

As my husband was driving me to work this morning, I was thinking about a recent article I read in the NY Times that reported on extremely low history test scores from American elementary and high school students. Less than 1/4th of high school seniors knew that China was North Korea’s ally in the Korean War, and only 35% of fourth graders “knew the purpose of Declaration of Independence.” I know little of what Americans teach their elementary school students (I went to elementary school in Canada), but as an American high school student I was able to observe how my peers reacted to the historical fact and theory presented to us. Most students in my classes rolled their eyes whenever historical discussion came up in any course. Perhaps students know little because they are taught in such a way that they have no desire to retain such seemingly unimportant information. I think a huge proponent of what makes or breaks interest in history for the average high school student relies how history is presented to them. Do their teachers attempt to represent history in a compelling manner, or do they drone on and on in a monotonous voice, reading from an equally monotonous textbook?

When I was a high school student, my history teachers – perhaps worn down by years of teaching disrespectful hoodlums – spoke about history in terms of fact. However,

[a] mere compilation of facts presents only the skeleton of History; we do but little for her if we cannot invest her with life, clothe her in the habiliments of her day, and enable her to call forth the sympathies of succeeding generations.  - Hannah Farnham Lee, The Huguenots in France and America

All of them but two did nothing to turn history into something personal and real, something that affects everyday people. History is not for the elites alone and does not only pertain to them. History is the story of the masses, of people rising up against oppression, of great leaders and thinkers changing world ideologies and cultural norms. Such things cannot be contained or constrained by mere facts and dates. They have to be announced, declared, and actively examined.

The two history teachers I had who truly engaged their students and made history exciting did so through creative means. They dressed up. They used unique voices and inflections, imitating historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. One had us write a Great Depression journal in which we created a character for ourselves who was caught in the dust storms of California. We had to incorporate fact and concept from FDR’s reforms and elements from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which made the assignment challenging and fun, because each student’s assignment would be different than their peers’. Once, we were taken to see Huck Finn at a playhouse. Another time, we had to break into groups and prosecute Nazi war criminals (a third of the class were Nazis, another third were prosecutors, and the final third were defense). My teachers played us movies and used them as discussion guides and visual tools for understanding events and relating to kings, soldiers, philosophers, commoners. We had to write about the meaning of certain speeches and read great novels that reflected historical situations, such as The Great Gatsby. Some of these novels, especially Johnny Got His Gun and The Things They Carried were deeply disturbing and ingrained history vividly and painfully into my mind. Disturbing our students emotionally – is this the way to get them to truly learn history?

Probably not, but displaying the psychology of history, the humanness behind it, has its merits. History is full of exciting events, people, places, conquests. The secret to student learning and understanding, I think, is a teacher’s representation of history. Most students probably don’t (and won’t) see much value in dates, laws, and hard facts. But history is more than these.

 

A boy who hears a lesson in history ended by the beauty of peace, and how Napoleon brought ruin upon the world and that he should be forever cursed, will not long have much confidence in his teacher.  He wants to hear more about the fighting and less about the peace negotiations.  - William Lee Howard, Peace, Dolls and Pugnacity

If you truly learn history, you learn about concepts, ideologies, and people who formed and changed the world. Everything that has happened in the past, to the beginning of the age, has affected and continues to affect worldviews, countries’ governances, politics, and cultural values. History itself, perhaps although not discussed in such frank terms in high school textbooks, is full of violence, sex and political scandals, bribery, incest, corruption, creation of new nations, secret societies and secret missions, rebellions, injustices; philosophers and preachers who spoke without care of persecution; world-changing ideas, books, and art… Such things are the foundation of history.

History in general is a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes among which we have now and then met with a few virtues, and some happy times.  - Voltaire, L’Ingénu

To high school history teachers, I advise you to take these things out of history and talk about them as best you can. Try not to sugarcoat history to avoid sparking debates or uncomfortable discussions. The uncomfortable moments in history should be discussed to reveal their relevance to the many current uncomfortable situations in the history we are living now, in the 21st century. Lead students toward an understanding of the greater picture of history and help them discover their niche of interest for further exploration during their college years. Speak with fervor. Know history for yourself so that you will teach with conviction and accuracy. Use art and other visual tools to explain history’s events, ideologies and ideals. Don’t be afraid to breathe personality into old bones: if you’re doing a lesson on Henry VIII, by all means call him an heretical womanizer, but explain that he was on a nail-biting quest to birth a male heir and was surrounded by new religious thought. Personalities, scandals, and the like are best examined with primary sources. Keep yourself up-to-date with current scholarship in the field and share any groundbreaking or controversial theories with your students – make the pursuit of history something that they can interact with and have say in. Take a survey at the start of classes to find out who in your class enjoys the study of history, who doesn’t, and why. Use your lesson plans to speak to the likes and dislikes of your students – engage them, prove relevance where it needs to be proven, and ignite curiosity.

Dear high schoolers, in college, history will, hopefully, become far more interesting to you. Your professors will not be barred from discussing historical events in realistic, even gory, terms (and hopefully your high school teachers spoke highly and rightfully of the inspiring aspects of history.) They are, after all, history professors because they are passionate about and committed to the field, to making new discoveries and explaining old ones. In your studies, remember that all things are affected by history and created in history:

It is only by understanding the past that we can understand how our society became the way it is, why we believe (or don’t) what we do, why our culture and media emphasize what they do. History is never antiquated, because humanity is always fundamentally the same.  - Walter Rauschenbusch