Wednesday, October 08, 2014

"That, Detective, is the Right Question"

“How did it come to this?”

-King Théoden, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (movie) 

History is stories. History is facts. History is events. History is thematic. History is legend. History is truth. History is written by the victors. History is a weapon. History is an argument without end. History is the hand of the Almighty. History is people. History is interesting. History is context.

Yet if you ask the average American, I suspect the most common refrain will be ‘History is boring’. Why is that? What takes the natural curiosity of a child looking for answers and turns it aside with ruthless efficiency?

It is in no small part an absence of a need for understanding. People learn best when there is a definitive and useful application. You look both ways to cross the street to avoid a jarring life event. People brush their teeth to retain molars and smell pleasant. Many children even develop the skill of walking because there is a perceived use. Humans like to see immediate application of what we are learning. The common refrain of students learning algebra is “Why does this matter to me?” In the case of algebra, the material must be known for the future despite its minimal application in the present. It can be taught effectively through rigorous exercises and rote coursework. There is undeniably a correct answer, a solution without dispute. Where math can be effectively compelled, history becomes more obtuse and ephemeral with regimented pressure. It is far from obvious to the reluctant student that history has applications or benefits today or tomorrow. Humans live and learn in the present, often inconsiderate of future needs or utility. In history education, this barrier must be overcome.

The separation of a great teacher from a merely competent teacher is the ability to offer value to the pupil. History will not endure as a litany of dates and facts. It is and must be taught as greater than the sum of its parts. One robust way is through stories[i]. We like stories; our western minds intuitively seek the beginning, the middle and the end. Our empathic side can transport us into the story, riveting us in the search for detail and meaning and purpose. When the application and benefits of learning history escape notice this backdoor of stories can endow appetite. In the absence of this, history education frequently fails the ‘Why does it matter to me?’ question. We want and need the answer to ‘How does it matter to me?’ to prompt the Théoden question, ‘How did it come to this?’

Our standard narration of history begins with our first evidence of the written word in ancient Sumer, where we learn of clay tablets and many things we don’t actually know. Then Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Here Be Dark Ages, Vikings, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1492, The Mayflower, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, light bulb, trenches in Europe, Nazis, Atom Bomb, and JFK. None of these things matter in the daily life of most adults, less so in the daily life of a K-12 student. This only begins to matter when people look and ask our Théoden question. When asking this question, people are seeking context; now history matters a great deal. To understand History and its context a personal desire is required.

The challenge for history education is to encourage and enable a student to ask our Théoden question. I propose we work backwards from our present position. Trace out present context in reverse by noting the turning points along the way. Ask “Why are all Americans treated as equal under the law?” We want to trace this idea to its genesis. Tell of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Share the story of Ricky Branch and Jackie Robinson. Let Susan B. Anthony be known. Tell the story of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Skip not Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears and the Great Compromise of Clay. Remind us of the Dred Scott decision. Tell of John Quincy Adams and the Amistad. Honor our bedrock of the US constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Tell of the elder Adams and his defense of the law and impartial justice, of Jefferson and his defense of man, of Madison and the separation of powers, of Monroe and his pen, and of Washington and his integrity with power. Teach of those binary stars Burke and Paine. Recall Locke and Hobbes, Cromwell and John Cooke, and the still earlier Magna Carta. Know that Hammurabi of Babylon did codify laws and that the Medes and the Persians held their monarchs bound. Let us never forget that all men are created equal, each created in the image of his creator. The vast sweep of history and context require understanding, yet the knowledge must find rest in the fertile soil asking the why and the how.

Will that fertile soil come into being? Not all students will muse as Théoden, nor should we force them to. It is imperative to understand that force-fed history is worse than no history at all. It provides the veneer of knowledge through possession of paperwork certifying completion. It fosters distaste for the subject of the past. No one eagerly anticipates the next glass of milk if the previous one was curdled when consumed. Let us not behave foolishly and ruin the minds which may become agreeable to this study in the future by souring the mind in the present. Let those who wish to ignore history do so as their choice, and leave the minds that will choose to concern themselves with the context of history unsullied with milk miserably curdled.  

[i] Practical Note for grades K-6th: Look at the Landmark series of history books published by Random House. These are a vast collection of narrative histories and biographies written by prolific children’s authors from the 1950’s-60s, and do an extraordinary job of embedding the story of people’s lives into the factual narrative of history. 

[ii] Here are some thoughts on why history matters to civilization and public policy choices of the electorate from 2012. 

[iii] Title From I, Robot,