[I post this in response to James Loewen’s recent interview in the Atlantic in a tiny effort to counter the assumptions he makes about history teaching and teachers. Please forgive the self-promoting tone; it was part of my candidate portfolio.]
Upon hearing that I teach history for a living, it is not uncommon for adults to tell me that they disliked, or even hated, the subject in school but that they enjoy and pursue it now. This always breaks my heart a bit. To make history dull is malpractice, and to make it high-spirited but shallow is equally a dereliction of duty.
History is an intellectual “Jaws of Life” tool; it forces open worldviews, steadily stretching and broadening the provincialism inherent to childhood. A good history class examines the origins of the institutions and systems within which we live and work and the ideologies that shape our culture. But it also asks us to apply our empathetic imaginations to the lives of people who are not like us; to employ our capacity for what the historian Edward Hallett Carr called “imaginative understanding” to our comprehension of places and eras far removed from our own.
My classroom emphasizes collaborative discussion based upon close examination of primary and secondary readings. We begin by considering the authorial perspective and historiographical context of everything we read or view. I might say that we follow the Harkness approach, except that we are more promiscuous in our methodology; our classes range from student- or teacher-led Socratic seminars to debates, small-group “fishbowl” discussions, and “silent” discussions that take place on an electronic forum. Students learn to be active and critical in their approach to texts and to evaluate the quality and soundness of any argument. And we work consistently to improve our writing, particularly of thesis-driven arguments that are forceful and well supported but also unafraid to confront nuance and ambiguity. Through a lively and sustained combination of reading, thinking, discussing, debating, and writing we gradually develop a broader and deeper perspective that informs our understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, the things we value and the things we oppose, our compassion for others, and the way we make meaning from our daily lives.
It is challenging to find a balance between providing teacher-led guidance and the promotion of internally-motivated learning. The goal is to allow students to drive discussions based upon their interests, questions, and insights, and the more they are trusted and given opportunities to do so, the greater their engagement and ownership of their learning. At the same time, the guidance of a historian who can point to essential themes, contexts, and interpretations is invaluable in nudging students toward deeper and sharper thinking. Thus, building strong collaborative skills takes place upon a foundation of positive and collegial relationships between teacher and student.
Content knowledge matters in history; without it, we cannot make important connections or ask those questions that lead to deeper and more rewarding analysis. In the face of sophistry, our critical “Spidey Senses” must activate in order to alert us to the need for cautious skepticism. But a breadth of content only shallowly processed accomplishes little except to instill anxiety. Rather than begin with a list of facts to be “covered,” I organize each topic of study around a set of essential understandings, and then we marshal and analyze the evidence needed to achieve that comprehension. For example, in our unit on the medieval worldview, my students examined a set of documents from the Crusading period that illuminated the roots of anti-Semitism in European history and the ways that language can be deployed to dehumanize. Then we looked at the statement released by ISIS in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks. Mirroring the medieval authors’ rhetorical techniques and littered with the language of the Crusades, the statement revealed the vastly different ways that history can be understood and made relevant within differing worldviews.
[Omitted: Conclusion about other professional interests and experience, etc.]