Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Defense of Facts and Memorization

Randall Stephens

I recently had a student in a large survey class who did not appear to be prepared for an exam. That's not unusual. But this student answered the essay question on the test in a very unusual way. She/he wrote a poem describing how much she/he hated "history." (I was glad to be spared from his/her wrath, at least in the poem.)

This got me thinking about why students say they despise history. It certainly could be related to how history is presented to them: dry-as-dust fashion, or one-damn-thing-after-another mode. Perhaps such students think of lectures, textbooks, and history classes in general as producing storms of useless facts, unconnected to reality. Some non-majors complain that they did not come to college to learn about the past or irrelevant dead people.

Some students might not have an aptitude for history, plain and simple. That's fine.

But how much of the undergraduate complaint against history has to do with an unwillingness to learn content? Surely one needs to know real details about the past in order to understand it.

It strikes me that historians can be a little too defensive about teaching too many of the facts, the details of history. To be sure history is not a collection of pointless facts, as I tell my students. Among other things history helps us undertsand who we are by examining who we were. I like how Peter Stearns puts it in "Why Study History" on the AHA site: "The past causes the present, and so the future. Any time we try to know why something happened—whether a shift in political party dominance in the American Congress, a major change in the teenage suicide rate, or a war in the Balkans or the Middle East—we have to look for factors that took shape earlier."

A student will need to know what actually happened in the past before he or she can go on to write history, tell a story, formulate arguments, and do the interesting work of interpretation.

That's not unique to history. Content and some basic memorization are a the heart of most disciplines. Biologists have to learn anatomy and classifications. Others in the hard sciences must memorize formulas and need to have a grasp of mathematics. Language requires plenty of memorization. And on and on.

History professors, though, blush a bit when they ask students to memorize a list of names, ideas, dates, and the like. A student of Antebellum America should know the difference between John Calhoun and John Brown. A student in a course on the Early Republic should be able to distinguish a Federalist from an Anti-Federalist. A student in a colonial history course will need to know that the French and Indian War came before the American Revolutionary War.

OK, I may be overstating the case, or grossly oversimplifying things . . . But, I'd like to say nothing more than this . . . facts matter, memorization has its place, and history does require exposure to and understanding of real content.

Oh . . . and George Washington never drove a Dodge Challenger.


Bland Whitley said...

It is curious how much resistance students exhibit when asked to learn facts about the past. Certainly, there can be similar rote memorization when it comes to, say, the periodic table--quick, what's the chemical # for Carbon? Yet history gets saddled with the reputation for making people learn things "they'll never use." I don't know if there's any way out of this problem. Perhaps stressing chronology, which at least gets students into the habit of thinking about the general drift of history.
And re: GW and his Challenger--I was at least mildly sympathetic to the auto bailout until I saw that cringe-inducing ad.

Randall said...

Ha, I thought Dodge was _Reclaiming Our History_.

Maybe it is the perceived "uselessness" that's the problem. How often does the average person use calculus after college?

Jonathan Rees said...


I think you've set up a false dichotomy. It's not facts or no facts. It's how many facts do you want them to know? I've been settling for less lately, but I think I more than make up for that by emphasizing analytical skills more.

Randall said...

Jonathan: You're probably right.

But where would analysis be without something to analyze?

Unknown said...

I'm currently assisting in a US History Colonial to Reconstruction intro course that satisfies my school's Gen Ed requirement. I think a lot of the students ARE annoyed they have to memorize facts and spit them back to us on tests. They seem to do better on the tests where they get to use their notes to build an argument in answer to a more interpretive question.

I've been pondering, when it's my turn to choose the content, what I'll want my students to remember, five or ten years after the one college history course they ever take. Is it facts? Themes? Complexity? Critical reading/thinking skills?

And, on the other issue, those ads were so anachronistic. Washington was clearly a Buick man.