Don’t Know Much About History

Let’s face it. History is boring. I know it, you know it, and it’s obvious to the brain-dead. Let me rephrase that: History the class is boring. History the subject is chock-full of all kinds of goodies. Sex, intrigue, whole-scale destruction, mass suicides, mass murders, crappy songs, heroes and villains, bed-knobs and broomsticks, witches and warlocks, the incredibly brave and the titanically stupid (the latter of which is always more fun to talk about). But while the subject of history is bursting at the seams with screen plays just begging to be written, most history classes are about as entertaining as navel lint.

Why? Why is history class so dreadfully boring? Some have blamed textbooks. Some have blamed increased specialization of the discipline itself which leads to historians who become isolated and weird(er). Some have blamed the trend toward consolidating history along with a host of other disciplines under the umbrella term; “Social Studies.” Some have blamed standards. Some have blamed the lack of standards. Some say we need standards until they find out that historians aren’t the type to make things up and/or follow orders, then these people switch and say we shouldn’t have standards. Liberals blame conservatives. Conservatives blame Clinton. Bob Segar blamed it on Midnight. Milli Vanilli blamed it on the rain. Personally, I blame talk radio. No particular logical reason, I just hate talk radio.

Seriously, one of the things that makes history so dreadfully boring is the way that it is taught. Most history classes follow a distinct pattern: the teacher comes in, maybe he or she writes on the board, maybe he or she turns on the Power Point projector, perhaps an overhead projector is involved. Then the teacher proceeds to talk for the next 940 years. Students consume as much of this incessant blabbing as they can, then they go home and stuff themselves with as much textbook information as they can. Then, the test day comes. Students come in and vomit up all of the stuff they’ve consumed either in an essay or a multiple guess test, go home, pray for a good grade, and forget everything they’ve supposedly learned. When a person treats food in such a fashion, we refer to it as the eating disorder Bulimia Nervosa. Essentially what many history classes are encouraging is a form of Academic Bulimia. Students are force-fed information that they later purge themselves of completely. They digest none of it, and a semester of opportunity to really edify a person’s life is lost forever.

To rectify this, there are several options. First of all, cover less material. All too often, history teachers get lost in the details, especially when they are talking about their specialty area. Is it really necessary that students know the exact dates and routes of each one of Columbus’ voyages? Isn’t it far more important to know the immediate and long-term impact of those voyages? Is it absolutely necessary for students to have a full understanding of Lee’s strategy at the battle of Gettysburg? Isn’t it far more important that they understand the significance of the battle in terms of the big picture? Another thing teachers can do is to break away from the traditional lecture format as much as possible. When I was teaching on the Salem Witch Trials, I put a student on trial for witchcraft. To recreate the experience, I had a couple of other students wail and carry on like they were either possessed or seeing evil spirits emanating from the accused. It made an event real to them. It also brought home the contemporary lesson about witch hunts, which makes history not only real, but relevant. Another suggestion is how I taught on the First Amendment. I had a student stand beside me at the front of the class. Me and this student demonstrated all four First Amendment freedoms simultaneously. We stood close together (assembly) while he held a Bible (religion) and I read a newspaper (press). On the back of the newspaper was written the words “‘CONGRESS’ IS THE OPPOSITE OF ‘PROGRESS'” (speech). You can’t be afraid to be creative in the pursuit of education.

Another favorite past time of mine is the use of modern examples to illuminate past events. In introducing the tumultuous 1850s, I described it as “the point in a relationship when the fights and shouting matches spill out of the apartment and into the parking lot for all to behold and be a part of.” In describing the 1864 Presidential election, I described George McClellan as “a Democrat and a combat veteran who was highly critical of the president’s conduct of the war, much like John Kerry.” In describing Charles the First of England, before giving his name I introduced him as King James’ son, who wasn’t really groomed to be king, wasn’t as experienced as his father or brother, he involved his country in a controversial foreign war, he caused controversy when he mingled religious and state affairs, and he had fierce opposition from the Northern and Western part of his kingdom. I then introduced his name and “King Charles the W” Such comparisons are not only informative, but they help students realize two fundamental truths: a. That history shows human nature hasn’t changed, and that current events are essentially tomorrow’s history.

Testing is a necessary evil in our profession. You have to be able to gauge what your students are learning. But tests are not always a reliable indicator of that. Some students simply do bad on tests, although they learn a lot in the class. Don’t be too reliant on tests as your standard. One way you can measure what they learn is by having them keep journals. First of all, they learn that they are a part of history seeing as how many of the primary sources historians use are journals. It connects them to the subject in a way lectures can’t. But more so than the relevant history skills they take from your class, what journals can do for them on a personal level far outweighs the immediate benefits.

One of the main problems that young, idealistic history teachers face is the same thing that many young teachers face: lack of student enthusiasm. Teachers desperately want students to be as passionate about the subject as they are. However, this is simply impossible and only sets the teacher up for a serious letdown. Instead, focus on the next big thing that grabs students’ attention: relevance. Relevance, or rather the lack thereof, is one of the biggest complaints students have about history classes. I have been asked on occasion, as have many other teachers “Why do we have to know a bunch of useless facts about a bunch of stuff that happened years ago?” Avoiding Academic Bulimia is one way to avoid this question. Journaling is another. Creative presentation is yet another and weaving in current events is as well. But the best possible way to make things relevant is to make it personal. The more you can make them see that they are a part of history and history is a part of them the more into it they will be. Have them tell family stories. Relate it to the material. Have them tell personal stories. Relate it to the material. Ask “where were you?” or “what would you have done?” or “how could it have been different?” at every single opportunity. Show them that they are a part of a glorious big picture that is incomplete without them in it. In doing that, you will have taught more than mere history, but skills that they will take to other classes and even into their own lives. They will see that they not only matter, but have a voice and a contribution to make. Along with teaching them to ask questions, this is the main purpose of education. Rather than feeding them for the day, they can eat for a lifetime.

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