“Historia Magistra Vitae”

The idea of “history as a teacher of life” is a truism that many of us learned from a young age. However, the what and the how is history supposed to teach us are not as self evident as it may seem. In the United States history started to be taught in schools as soon an educational system started to be created. However, there have been many changes in terms of who has been responsible for teaching history, what should be taught, and what should be the goals pursued and methods used by teachers is history.

Since the nineteenth century, we have seen an abundance of reflections on the nature of history, many of them in response to the view that the role of history was simply to compile historical narratives aimed at helping students become proud and law-abiding citizens. This was to be achieved, however, by making sure students learned these narratives without always having an understanding of how said narratives were produced. This version of history as a teacher was partial to the idea that to learn history or to think historically was equivalent to knowing the facts of a story. In this version, questions about contextualization, interpretation or sourcing were often ignored or secondary. The emphasis given this aspect of historical thinking was reinforced by the development of textbooks as the main tools for history teachers. As history became a required part of school curricula and history teaching was professionalized, states started to create standards that were to dictate the content and approach of text books. Over the years, debates about what should be included in the history curriculum have become increasingly political; much less concerned with teaching historical thinking and more with history as a collection of well-defined narratives meant to cultivate students’ moral character and national identity.

The political dimension of these debates has also increased the calls for accountability, which in turn has led to the development of types of assessment aimed at measuring what students learn in history classes. Not surprisingly, measuring history learning, has been largely limited to measuring how many facts a student can remember at the time of the test. Although, more states have included contextualization and sourcing into their standards, history teaching and assessment continues of favor a “coverage” approach in which the amount of knowledge is meant to reflect the amount of learning.

The prevalence of this version of history as a teacher cannot be blamed on the fact that historians don’t know any better. Political and logistical factors have conspired to reinforce this particular approach to teaching history. Historical thinking is complex, it requires the use of a variety or materials, primary and secondary sources, maps, artifacts, even field trips; and it requires a significant level of historical as well as historiographical knowledge from the instructor. There is no wonder textbooks have been so successful. They have successfully created the illusion of coverage and convenience in a not-so-neat and not-so-little package.

The explosion of the internet and the proliferation of historical information has, however, shattered this illusion. More than ever, history as a teacher of discernment and reasoning needs to complement history as the teacher of facts. Ironically, modern technology has made historical materials more abundant and accessible and, in doing so, it has also made it possible for teachers and students to bypass the authority of the text book and try to make sense of primary and secondary sources on their own. The question is whether these technologies can also provide the infrastructure for a new kind of history education that not only increases access but can also enhance students willingness to embrace the complexity inherent to historical thinking. We are still on the early stages of this particular phase, but I do not think it is casual that, as we have seen this explosion of information, there is greater emphasis on the teaching of history more as a problem solving discipline and less as a memory contest. The complete shift towards a more well-rounded understanding of history teaching will not happen quickly, and there is no proverbial pill that will make it happen, no longer can we rely on the textbook as the deceptive solution to all our problems. However, shattering this illusion is, in my view, a most promising sign that we are ready to let history be a much better teacher in our modern life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *