Why study history? This is a question I sometimes ask students, and it’s one that sometimes is asked of me. Whatever the answer, it is central to understanding how to teach history.
As part of a graduate course on “Teaching and Learning History in the Digital Age” at George Mason University, we have been asked to propose three or four question about teaching history and to provide tentative answers. For me, the question of why even study history is therefore fundamental.
For me, it’s enough to say that I enjoy history. I always have. Perhaps this has to do with my family’s story. My parents came to the United States from Latvia, propelled by a series of events that began with the Second World War. It’s rather hard to avoid history when you realize that world events have shaped who you are. However, that alone doesn’t explain my interest. I’ve always had a curiosity about the past, plus I enjoy the chase of tracking down information in historical records.
But that does not offer enough of an answer to the question of why study history. As a number of scholars have observed, the teaching of history is — and has been for some time — in some state of crisis.1 Students, from elementary school through the university level, don’t enjoy the subject. This has as much to do with issues of delivery, such as one-way communication focused on presenting facts, as with relevance. The turn toward teaching historical thinking is a welcome shift, but raises the question of why such an epistemological approach is needed. Learning historical thinking is a great way to grasp how to uncover and evaluate evidence. In an era when concern about the veracity of information has become a political and social concern, this is a skill that should be taught to students. History, however, is not the only subject that requires the ability to grapple with information. Therefore, “why history” is one of the questions I hope to resolve this semester.
Lendol Calder’s suggestions2 for how to redesign the survey course have me thinking a lot about the mass communication history course I teach at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His “uncoverage” approach seems straightforward enough, but before I commit to it wholeheartedly I need to convince myself that it will mesh well with other curricular objectives in our journalism program. I sense that it could, but, as they say, change is difficult. Thus, another question is how to best to overcome my own reluctance to change a history survey: Should I go slow, introducing incremental changes through the next several iterations of the course, or commit 100 percent? Incremental changes would allow experimentation and tweaking, but for a course that is taught every other year, it seems a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change would be more effective.
Calder’s approach also relies in part on students working in small groups. University students loathe working in groups. It doesn’t matter whether working in a group messes with their sense of individualism or their fractured schedules or their fear that they will be dragged down by the weakest link, the mention of collaborative work often elicits resistance. A final question then is what collaborative projects work best in a revamped history survey — or are they even necessary? I believe they are, because so much of work in the “real world” is collaborative. However, making these projects work well, especially in a digital environment, is the trick.
Having just read Mills Kelly’s thoughts on The History Curriculum in 2023, I have to agree that if history curricula (and, for that matter, many of the humanities and social science disciplines) do not keep up with the times in terms of the digital economy, then they face the prospect of being left behind and possibly forgotten. Teaching historical facts may have had some utility a century ago, but today much more critical is teaching historical thinking. As Kelly suggests, the digital tools and platforms with which students are very familiar hold the potential of enlivening the teaching of history and making the discipline much more relevant to the current and future generations of undergraduates. Using these tools and platforms to allow students to creatively engage with history may not turn them into professional historians, but it could help them become more critical consumers of information.
(Updated June 8, 2017)
1. See, for example, Michael Henry, “A Fifty-Year Perspective on History Teaching’s ‘Crisis,'” OAH Magazine of History 7:3 (Spring 1993), 5-8; Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” The Phi Delta Kappan 80:7 (March 1999), 488-499; Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).
2. Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92:4 (March 2006), 1358-1370.