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Published at 07:21 PM on January 8, 2009
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When I was younger, I thought history didn’t matter. To me, history was a dusty land filled with dates, maps, and death rates. I thought the inhabitants of this land — historians — were old, dusty people who had nothing interesting to say.

In short, I confused history with historical societies.

Right: An Aerial View of the Smithsonian

I was, and am, a person driven by change (action) and, to an unhealthy extent, power. Technology and politics, my passions, both move at a breakneck pace and are always focusing on the future. To my naive self, history was entirely antithetical to my entire philosophy.1

As one might expect, school was at fault. School taught me to memorize dates and people.2 We almost never explored the context of these events; we never delved into the legacies of the leaders beyond the most basic level. Timelines made regular appearances, as did color-coded maps. All this memorization took up time, time which would have been better spent thinking.

Naturally, given this context, I felt that history was something to be avoided like the plague.3

Now, of course, I know better.

Once I got teachers who actually understood and enjoyed history, I was able to see beyond the numbers. I discovered that history wasn't a textbook or timeline, but a story, and a damn good story at that. With this discovery, I was able to find the joy of the past.

Not to go all philosophical on you, but the past really is the present.

Society evolves, but evolution involves a lot of repetition. Each iteration is almost exactly the same as the last, with only minor differences. A knowledge of that past iteration helps you to understand the current iteration — and the differences between the two.

Understanding — truly understanding — the world (politics, society, technology, etc.) is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Thankfully, we have the past to help us. With the wisdom of the past, we can more easily understand the present. Instead of having to draw an entirely new map of the world, we only need to draw a map of the new parts.

Almost every situation we encounter, somebody else has encountered before. Even when we can’t see them, we’re walking in someone’s footsteps. Thankfully, that someone has probably already come up with a solution for or analysis of the situation. I am continuously reminded of this, whether in my daily Googling of technical problems or my comparisons between Palin and McCarthy. When it comes down to it, history is probably the most useful subject there is.

Sadly, far too many teachers get it wrong. Though I'm sure you're not one of them, you probably know some of them. History, more than any other subject, is really easy to get wrong.4 It is far too easy to get caught in the micro-history (who fought in what battle on what date?) and forget about the macro-history (why was he fighting?), especially because the micro-history is very easy to teach and test. Given this, it is no surprise that many history teachers don't teach history.

And every time it is a tragedy. When taught as a collection of dates, history loses its spark. A bad history teacher will — guaranteed — make history dull and lifeless. In other subjects, one can get by with a poor teacher and still enjoy it. History, more than any other subject, depends strongly on the quality of the teacher. A good history teacher5 will make even the most reluctant of students sit up in their chairs, but a bad history teacher will make even (or, especially) the future-historians start texting under the table. In no other class is this true: math people will always find numbers mathematical language interesting, and some never will.6 The cost of a poor history teacher is great, but the benefits are superb: history gives students a framework to understand their world.

So please, remember to take the hi- off history.

Of course, at some point the “facts” do become important. The dates and names aren’t entirely irrelevant, especially as one wishes to progress. To talk effectively and intelligently about the ideas, one must know the facts — especially if one aims to convince others. However, the ideas are indisputably more important — without them, history is pointless. Unfortunately, the ideas are generally only seriously discussed in the upper grades of high school and college. Up until then, the bare facts hold almost exclusive domain. By the time students reach the exciting parts of history, we have built a (false) image of history as boring and pointless — in fact, many never reach those discussions simply because they assume all history is as boring as 5th grade history. Even at the unit level, history is taught in the wrong order. Most teachers start with the bare facts and only touch on the bigger ideas near the end of a lesson. This should be reversed on both the micro and macro levels, with grand ideas being taught first to build interest and discussion. Only with the themes in place should the facts be taught, to supplement and reinforce those themes, leading to continued investigation. The primary focus of history should always be the story.

think new

Right: My countdown wallpaper from Mediumjones at Smashing Magazine

What do you think the proper order of history education is? Do you think schools need to focus more on the context of history?

Notes
  1. My philosophy at that time boiled down to: a. get power; b. use power
  2. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
  3. There we go again with historical references.
  4. Science is close second.
  5. To be clear, a teacher doesn't need to be living or breathing. Wikipedia, with The Google and good critical analysis, is one of my favorite history teachers.
  6. I stand firmly in the former camp.

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you know I was thinking back to the best teachers I’ve had the other day and realized that the ones I recall the most are my history teachers (AP in high school and my freshman history teacher). Both had great approaches (we debated John Brown’s motives, listened to music about the time and even read a novel about works in the steel industry in Pittsburgh). I think you’re right, bad history teachers can be bad, when it’s all numbers and dates. But history is probably my favorite subject today…to bad I wasted 7 years on political science and education. JK
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@joe: I definitely agree: my best teachers have for the most part been history teachers. It’s interesting that you mention political science end education, though, because really history should be part of everything—especially political science. Every field has a history, and a knowledge of that history helps one to learn today.

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