Monday, June 3, 2013

Humanizing History

Steven Cromack

When I teach, I deliberately make an effort to connect big history to the personal lives of my students. At the heart of my world history curriculum are three main ideas:

Walker Evans' photo, "In front of 310 East
Sixty-first Street," 1938. Courtesy
of the Library of Congress.
  1. How each individual sees the world matters.
  2. Reality is a construction based on an individual’s worldview.
  3. It is difficult to reconcile an individual’s interests with those of a society.
It is my hope that as we examine history with these ideas in mind, students can begin to think about their existence on a deeper level; that as they go about their daily lives, they have the skills they need to grapple and engage with their world; and that they will learn to face not only their own beliefs and sense of morality, but also those of others. In immersing oneself in the world, the individual turns information into meaningful enlightenment. For, as John Dewey once wrote, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” 

Students in my class examine how ideas and concepts travel from generation to generation and arrive in their own lives. They can see that what drives them to interact with their peers in school—the search for a community, something to which they can belong—resembles what drove immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 20th century. Does cutting a bad player from a team lead to better performance overall? Stalin rapidly industrialized the Soviet Union and the economy grew 400%. That progress, however, came at the cost of 20 million lives lost to forced labor and mass execution.

Ultimately, what is the value of a human life? Is the life of a Belgian worth more than that of a Congolese? King Leopold certainly thought so based on his European worldview. Is the life of an American worth more than that of an Iraqi? The 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund set the value of a life at fifteen times the annual earnings of a person. The average payout to the families of the 9/11 victims was $1.8 million. The United States government writes out a check for $2,500 to those Iraqi families who have lost a loved one from collateral damage.

These are not easy questions, and students have a difficult time grappling with them. Yet, by asking such questions, history becomes more than the study of the past, and more than the progression of events—history becomes a part of everyday existence. History now becomes personal.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

And history becomes uncomfortable. I'm squirming just reading through that list of questions, Steven.
How do your students respond to them? These are, of course, the really important "so what?" of our discipline, but how much of what you're trying to do is being "caught" by your students? This is my struggle....

Steven Cromack said...

Lisa - I found that, at first, it took students some time to wrap their minds around those three concepts. At first, they simply listen. Over time, however, and after hearing them over and over again, they begin connecting history with those themes. Each student realizes their worldview matters. This becomes evident in written work over the course of the year, as well as the class discussion. I also found that when taught in the right way, high school students have an intellectual curiosity. They want to engage with their surrounding and society, but need a means to do so. Those questions, I think, provided that platform, and "it was good."

rossinini said...

Hi Steve, I thank you personally for your blog. Coming from a country with lost, cloaked and fabricated history, History has been a study that I will forever in research. As a father now, I have taught my son, to study history, be aware of current events as they unfold and use it in his daily productive decision making.

We have the same views teaching history. I hope you can be my son's History Professor, so when peer pressure and teenage adventurism comes, he is with good peers. In my place's state of affairs, Patriotism and Revisionism is unfolding. Like history, it is followed by radicalism.