The Atlantic profiles exciting ways to teach historyHistorians in the News
In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.
This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.
The field of history is often dismissed as dull, but educators like Moss are experimenting with innovative teaching strategies to teach history in a way that is effective, exciting, and productive. There’s “Reading like a Historian,” based at Stanford and aimed at the K-12 level, which explicitly hones the ability to take primary sources and interpret, construct meaning, recognize competing narratives, and contextualize as a historian would. “Reacting to the Past,” started at Barnard College by Mark Carnes, is a student-centered college curriculum consisting entirely of role-playing games. “Facing History and Ourselves,” which grew out of a course focused on the Holocaust, uses a multi-pronged approach to get young people in grades six through 12 thinking about the ramifications of genocide and mass violence as a way of reflecting on moral choices they themselves face in their own lives.
History education generates heated controversy among educators and policymakers. There is a long history of tension over which historical facts children should be learning in school and when, whether a particular set of proposed standards is too patriotic, too multicultural, or whitewashes uncomfortable truths. Controversies over the content and nature of what children are learning often fall along political lines: The Michigan State Board of Education recently delayed voting on its new social-studies standards because of a controversy over whether liberal bias was behind proposals to include civil rights in the curriculum before high school, while in Texas, critics repeatedly accuse textbook authors of reflecting conservative political views in their coverage of topics such as religion or slavery.
Perhaps the most major current-day divide falls along the lines of content versus skills: Should history classes be about acquiring facts and information, or should they emphasize historical thinking abilities and processes? And if the latter, which skills and how might they best be taught? While a positivist view of history—the 19th-century notion that history was akin to a science, and that the accumulation of historical facts would eventually lead to an objective understanding of events—fell out of favor long ago, this idea seems to remain the operative assumption behind traditional history curricula that emphasize content, chronology, and comprehensiveness. ...
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