Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Teaching Recent History

Having read the sad tale of a commenter who never got past 1850 in her world history class, I've been thinking that schools could work backwards through history, rather than chronologically forward as it is usually done. It would make sense to teach our kids, first, what the world is like today. For US kids, it would be helpful to take a global approach, so they understand the US as one country among many, rather than the center of the universe.

Once you've got some understanding of what's going on today, you could ask, how did it get like this? Then you could study the history of the last hundred years, with special emphasis on the Depression, since we are apparently compelled to repeat it.

While I agree with the traditionalists that there is a basic set of stuff that a well-educated person should know, I also agree with the progressives that the mark of an educated mind is curiosity and the desire to know more. I think history is fascinating (no thanks to school) and I hope my kids will feel the same.

It might be interesting for kids to study bad predictions of history. For instance, there was a famous archeologist in Egypt, Theodore Davis, who announced that the Valley of the Kings had been completely excavated and there were no more important discoveries to be made there. A few years later, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

And how about the guys who wrote Dow 36,000 in 1999? Oops.


  1. The politics of what constitutes History and how it is taught is a fascinating topic. Because it's not just about facts...if only!

  2. Anne, excellent point. I feel another post coming on ...

    There is no such thing as unbiased history, just as there is no such thing as unbiased news reporting. As soon as you decide what to report and what to leave out, you've made a biased decision.

  3. PsychMom says:
    That's why I'm less concerned with Traditional History being taught...the history we know, as we understand it, is just the history as told by old dead, rich white guys...mostly Christian too. If we learn how to be skeptics, how to look at more than one side of a story, if we learn how to read with a vigilant eye....then we've been taught a skill that's useful. I guess that's what the teachers are trying to get at when they ask children to pull their reading chapters apart ...but it's got to be done at the right age, and at a time when young minds are actually starting to consider what the next guy might be thinking.

  4. PsychMom, my fear is that our concern about teaching the history of old dead rich white Christian men will cause us to teach no history at all. That's not progress.

  5. From PsychMom:

    Are you sure? Because I'm not. (I used to be quite sure that it was but....I've changed) Who says that learning history occurs in the first 18 years of life?

    I think it's more important to teach the access part. I think school should focus on opening the minds wide open ...not necessarily filling them with information that has no meaning to them. School needs to become a priming area...how do we keep the creativity flowing? how do we teach them to get along with all kinds of people? how do we help them to figure out what their personal strengths (and weaknesses) are?

    I'm not denying that a culture needs to be aware of its past in order to grow and develop. But I think it's "same old, same old" to assume that teenagers need to learn history.

  6. PsychMom, it's so interesting to correspond with you! In many ways, I agree with you. I too would like to see school as a priming area that prepares kids for a lifetime of learning.

    But at the same time I am tired of talking to young adults who just don't seem to know anything.

    Also, I think the best way to teach kids how to learn is to have them engaged in learning real content. I'd even put up with some old dead rich white Christian men, if it means that the kids are clearly learning something, as opposed to learning nothing in particular.

  7. From PsychMom

    You would have found me dull, FedUpMom, before I started to actually "think" about school...heck I would have ignored me completely. But I love the discussions I engage in here and on StopHomework.

    These young folk that you find tiresome....what would they have to know about to be less tiresome? I think that young people have always been tiresome compared to more mature folks. To tell you the truth, I get more frustrated with people my own age (cusp o'50)who don't know anything, who don't read the newspaper, who don't watch the news, whom I can't engage in a political discussion because they " just don't pay attention to any of that stuff. They're all just a bunch of crooks anyway." Real conversationalist. Perhaps I just talk to the wrong people.

    Don't get me wrong, I want the kids to learn something too. I like your suggestion of studying from the current time and moving backwards. But I'm not sure what I'd like those young tiresome people to know about. I know it used to drive me nuts when a best friend of mine didn't know where any country in the world was...she had no clue about geography....but 25 years later, she wealthy enough that she's seen more of the world than I have. Could she find these places on a map?..probably not, but she and I can talk at an equal level about these things, even if I can find them on the map, know whether the country is run by a dictatorship or not and can probably list off a famous author from that country.

    I just don't know if we should be expecting that from 18 year olds? What are they supposed to know?