Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"I hate history": Thinking of Ways to Get the Average, History-Hating Student Interested in the Study of the Past

Randall Stephens

I'm gearing up to teach a large West in the World since 1500, civ-style class. As usual, I know there will be dozens of students enrolled who care not a fig for history and think historical knowledge is, at best, useless trivia. "I'm a business major. Why do I need to know all this?" My work is cut out for me, as it is for other professors who will be teaching similar gen-ed classes in the fall.

I like to start off course like this with a general "Why study history" lecture. We study the past to know who we are and to know how history still shapes the present, I tell them. History is also our collective memory. Just as we think it is not best for a person to have amnesia, we also think it is best for a society to have a collective memory. I also usually touch on the chief contributions historians have made to our understanding of what it means to be human. And, I spend some time looking at the very different views various historians have concerning the same events.

This year, though, I was thinking about doing something a little different. I plan to pose some general questions/head-scratchers that might get them thinking historically about why things are the way they are and why history matters. So, for example:

In 1931 the historian Carl Becker said: "If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history." Do you have a family history? Do things that happened in your family in the past still shape how you interact with your mother, father, sister, brother, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles?

Show the students a map of the world. Ask: Why is it that the northern hemisphere has tended to contain the wealthiest countries in the world? What light might history shed on that development? Explain Jared Diamond's thesis.

Read them a mid-19th century law on the status of women as dependents. Ask: How do we got from that point A to point B today?

Draw a long timeline, spanning back 200,000 years, the starting point of modern humans. Ask: Why it is that only relatively recently--roughly 5,000 years ago--humans began to record their history?

The historian Mary Beard says that most people today would find the "brutality toward other human beings" in the ancient world to be abhorrent. Throughout most of human history slavery and rigid social hierarchies were taken for granted. Ask: Why do modern western societies value equality and humanitarianism?

Show students some maps from the early modern era and some from the modern era. Ask: What accounts for the fundamental differences in how cartographers drew these maps? What might history tell us about the changing perceptions those in the West and those in the East had of the world?

Quote Johann Gottfried Herder: "History is geography." Ask: Is history shaped or controlled more by geography than any other force? Why or why not?

Does history have a direction? Are we heading "somewhere"? Is society getting better? Is society getting worse? How could we know one way or the other?

Needless to say . . . I'm still thinking through these.


Katy said...

I found history excruciatingly boring in high school and yet for reasons still unknown, I wound up studying it in college. I was all set to become a history teacher myself and in a course entitled "issues in teaching history and social science", we finally began to explore some of the issues that you have raised. I think it is of the utmost importance that students of history (forced or otherwise), have some perspective as to why history is a relevant and perhaps much more important area of study than given credit. I love the idea of the link between history and geography. All too often, geography is thrown by the wayside and pictures and maps in history texts neglected as filler. Borders change, power shifts, ideologies expand and recede. Would have loved to have a thoughtful gen ed history professor like you.

Randall said...

Thanks for the kind words, Katy. Glad to hear that the study of history became an exciting topic for you.

It would be fun to create a "Why Study History" resource website. I'm sure that there are loads of questions history professors have developed to get students to think about how and why history "matters."

I would guess that quite a few historians just assume it is a relevant, vital area of study. But, we all need to remember that it looks nothing like that to most undergrads.

Gregg McPherson said...

I write quite a bit about the history of technology and i think the points you raise are excellent. I ask myself the question of why should someone care about the history of technology? The answer is that it made us who we are today and technology continues to make us who we will be tomorrow. I realize that it is not just technology, but perspective is a very valuable thing.

Randall said...

Gregg: You really do have your work cut out for you! Would be fun to get students to think about the chief developments in technology over the last 100 years and how that has reshaped our lives.