Thursday, November 27, 2008

Historical Perspective

Mention the word “history” to a person and you will often receive a groan and apprehensive expression usually reserved for students ambushed by a pop quiz, or ambushed by Jay Leno and his staff on the streets of Los Angeles for another segment of the “Jay-Walk All Stars”, the part of the Tonight Show that makes comedy out of pedestrians’ lack of knowledge. There’s something about the mention of “history class” that brings back the worst sort of tedious, parochial memories. The groan that you are greeted with when mentioning the subject comes from hours of forced memorization, and the apprehensive look comes from the fear that you are going to ask a historical question which they may not know the answer to, embarrassing themselves in front of you, or, in the case of the Jay-Walk All Stars, in front of millions of Americans! History doesn’t have to cause this kind of anxiety and dread; when taught and studied in the right manner, it is an incredibly enriching and entertaining subject.

One quandary in the teaching of history is the massive amount of dates; teachers feel the need to teach them, and the students hate learning them. The irony of history being taught by dates is that the great lessons of history can’t be learned by memorizing dates. Dates, rather, should be treated as the framework within which to organize historical information. Just because an event can be placed does not mean that it is understood; somebody knowing that the Civil War ended in 1865 does not indicate that they know the causes, results, or importance that the war brings to modern times. The great gift of history is not in the numbers or dates, but in the understanding and perspective that it gives us of ourselves and our times. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln, a dedicated student of history, once lamented the fact that he was not born in the times of the American Revolution, when it was possible for Americans to be of great service to their country. At that point in time, Lincoln had no knowledge of the service he would render in the coming years, but he understood the worth and value of the American political experiment because of his knowledge of history.

Additionally, stories told using only a framework of dates and times are boring! Imagine a friend telling you that they have a comical story about almost missing a flight, then proceeding as follows:

“At 1:00pm on July 12th, my first flight arrived at the airport. My next flight was at 1:20 at a gate on the other side of the airport. I thought I might not make it on time, but I arrived at 1:18 and did make my flight.”

Terrible story, right? We don’t want to just hear a chronological framework as a story, we want the storyteller to describe how they accidentally grabbed someone else’s bag because they were in a rush, nearly lost a shoe when leaping off a moving walkway, and thought they were going to have to chase the airplane out on the runway to catch it, right? That’s the stuff that makes the story interesting! It’s the same with history. The interesting stuff is the stuff behind the date and event, and often, that is what makes it truly memorable.

An argument can be made that it is simply not possible to teach history in the depth that it could be taught because of time constraints, particularly in formal school settings. Homeschoolers typically have more time to devote to particular subjects, but still, trying to fit over two hundred years of detailed American history into a school year can seem daunting. However, it is not necessary for your student to go in depth with every event in history for them to benefit greatly from studying some events in depth. The themes, issues, and knowledge gained from studying certain things in depth can often be applied to time periods as a whole. A recent, and excellent example of this is David McCullough’s book “1776”, which tells the story of that year in American history. McCullough only touches briefly on events that occurred before or after that year, but by exploring the year of 1776 in depth he provides a better understanding of the causes, struggles, and results of the entire American Revolution.

Another great way to study history is through biographies. History is often viewed as a web of broad themes and complex situations, and for some students, these may be better understood through the eyes of an individual. A good biography not only places you in the life of the subject, but also their world and environment. For example, it is impossible to read a biography on Benjamin Franklin without learning a lot about the American Revolution, because Franklin was heavily involved in that movement. Additionally, by reading about Franklin, one can learn about life in colonial times, what it was like to work as a printer, and many 18th century scientific experiments at the same time! The reality is that Franklin had an inquisitive mind and was heavily engaged in the world of his day, so if you read about him, you will, by necessity, be reading about the world he lived in.

An additional benefit to studying some periods of history in depth is that your student will grow to appreciate the subject, and will even enjoy it! This will cause them to be interested in history and seek it out long after they finish formally studying the subject. The intrigue provided by the topics they did study in depth will drive them to learn more about the times and events that you did not cover in depth. Help mold an amateur historian and make the world a better place!