I’ve Taught History for 40 Years. I’m Alarmed.

tags: history

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School.

Classroom image  by ProjectManhattan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

As I retire after forty years of teaching history I find myself concerned about the future of a discipline so essential for establishing some sense of meaning in our complex technological age. During my tenure as a teacher, curriculum issues were often the source of considerable controversy as some parents pushed for a grand master narrative celebrating American exceptionalism and chafed at the complexities introduced into the story by considerations of race, gender, and social class. Although these debates were sometimes intense, I recognize that I did share some common ground with the advocates of American exceptionalism. We both believed that history was important and crucial for understanding the American experience as well as the world. The conclusions we drew from the study of history were often quite different, but these discussions over the interpretation of historical events provided a good model for students in how to handle controversial issues within a democratic framework. My fear, however, is that concerns over the history curriculum will recede as the discipline becomes increasingly perceived as irrelevant for our technological age.

Today the emphasis is upon science, technology, and mathematics within the STEM education program to address the shortage of engineers in the United States. There is certainly nothing wrong with fostering the study of science and mathematics while promoting the growth of engineering. However, the emphasis upon math and science often leaves little time for the study of history, while future engineers desperately need the skills necessary to place their work within a broader historical and social context. In addition, young people studying engineering are going to require citizenship education as they live and work within a democratic as well as a world faced with shrinking resources and the challenge of climate change. Yet, in recent years I have become increasingly distressed by parents who perceive the study of history as taking valuable time from their children’s more significant study of math and science. Part of the interest in advanced placement history is a desire to get required history requirements out of the way during high school so that the university years may be devoted exclusively to the study of a discipline such as engineering which will guarantee lucrative future employment. This view of higher education as simply providing the basis for job placement within a technological society may be understandable in light of the student loan debt burden, but it is shortsighted and fails to address the larger goals of a college education.

History has also failed to find a place within the Common Core curriculum, although the study of history and the reading of primary documents and nonfiction books may certainly be incorporated into the literacy requirements of Common Core. However, such exercises often neglect to develop history’s greatest contribution to education: the understanding of change through time and the significance of chronology, in addition to gaining a greater degree of empathy through understanding how personal decisions and choices are often guided by historical context. The complexity of studying change over time is also exacerbated by the instant gratification inherent in modern technology. Students have little patience for reading a historical text presenting the nuances of an argument that does not provide a quick answer to the question under consideration. A common complaint is that the author keeps repeating the same ideas as students quickly skim through the reading searching for the answer; ignoring the complexity of an argument that does not allow for simple solutions.

Many contemporary teaching techniques involving problem-based learning and teachers as facilitators tend to foster these concerns about the search for the quick fix. There is, of course, nothing inherently problematic with having students take a more active role in their education. The lecture hall is certainly not the only way to learn history. Nevertheless, student-directed and peer review education still requires the guidance of a teacher who is well versed in the study of history—a fact that many school systems seem to ignore in their hiring practices. Students need to be guided beyond the basic facts contained in a Wikipedia piece to examine the complexities of historical interpretations and why these perspectives may change over time. Problem-based education often has a technological focus with only a small component of looking at the problem to be resolved within historical context, and the emphasis, thus, is often upon presentism at the expense of the past. But this does not have to be the case as well-trained history teachers may tailor problems to serve their discipline. For example, a recent lesson plan that I examined on the Spanish Civil War asked students to assume the role of a museum curator establishing an exhibit on the conflict which tore Spanish society apart. The students/curators were asked what paintings and photographs they would select and to justify their choices in written and oral arguments. Thus, modern technology and teaching techniques certainly may be implemented and encouraged in the study of history.

In order to do this, however, we must reserve time and space in the curriculum for the study of history. The current emphasis upon immigration in the 2016 presidential contest suggests the essential perspective that a detailed examination of American history might bring to this debate. While considering this question through such symbols as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, it is also worthwhile to explore the idea of immigration from a Native American perspective. In fact, one of the goals of history should be, as Scout Finch suggested in To Kill a Mockingbird, to take a walk in someone else’s shoes. Do American citizens and students understand that our southern boundary was obtained in what many historians consider to be a war of aggression with Mexico? Current fears regarding Muslims within the United States are usually traced to the recent terrorist assaults in Paris and San Bernardino, California or the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. History, however, points to long peaceful Muslim immigration into the United States, while also noting that discrimination against Muslims within the United States and around the world is also part of the American experience dating back to the institution of slavery. An understanding of this history would bring a greater degree of perspective to contemporary debates on immigration and Islam, taking us full circle back to the debate over what we should teach in the schools and universities. In the final analysis, history remains essential to the democratic process and is too complicated and important to be left to engineers. The struggle and debate over the content of the history curriculum is crucial for defining ourselves as Americans and citizens of the world, and this is a dialogue in which all students need to participate.       

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