'You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It'

tags: pedagogy, teaching, Eric Foner



David Cutler teaches history and journalism at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida. He writes regularly about education for his website, SpinEdu.

It’s tough for a historian to earn the adoration of both academia and popular culture, but Eric Foner has managed to do it. His books on American history are assigned reading at universities and colleges across the country. Reviewers have praised his work as “monumental in scope” and declared that it “approaches brilliance.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2011 book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery—and appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss it. (In addition, I can’t overstate the lasting influence that Foner has had on my career as a high-school history teacher. I constantly refer to his growing body of work when teaching students not only original thinking, but also effective writing and analysis. I’ve also used his textbook to teach Advanced Placement United States History with terrific results.)

I recently spoke to Foner about the teachers who influenced him and how high-school history teachers can better prepare students for college.


You’ve spoken of how as a history student, many professors inspired you and your career, such as James Shenton and your dissertation adviser, the legendary Richard Hofstadter. What did you learn from them about what makes a great teacher?

I tell my students nowadays who are in graduate school and going on to become teachers—the number one thing is to have a real passion for your subject and to be able to convey that to your students. Obviously the content is important, but that's not as unusual as being able to really convey why you think history is important. I think that's what inspires students. Shenton was a great teacher, not really a very productive scholar in terms of writing, but a wonderful classroom teacher [who] inspired many, many students, myself among them.

Hofstadter was a little different. Hofstadter was not an inspiring classroom teacher. He was actually a very modest man. What I learned from Hofstadter was the craft of writing. He was a brilliant writer, he was a great critic, and he really taught the importance of taking language seriously, to think through the words you use, to rewrite. It's in the rewriting that the craft of writing really begins and the word choice, and the organization, and how to use quotations, and how to present evidence. The literary aspect of history is something that I really learned to value from Hofstadter.




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