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Teaching history

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Posted

The historian Niall Ferguson was the subject of a piece in The Observer today, reporting his criticisms of history teaching in the UK. As well as objecting to the emphasis placed on Nazi Germany in school lessons and the disjointed other subjects available, he advocates a different approach:

Ferguson says history should have a "mandatory chronological framework" throughout secondary school and on to A-level. He also calls for more emphasis on western ascendancy, not in "an attempt to turn the clock back" but because understanding why the world became more Eurocentric after 1500 is the "modern historian's biggest challenge". He suggests a focus on why the scientific revolution did not take place outside Europe and how democracy emerged first in the west.

This argument will appear in “Liberating Learning: Widening Participation, a collection of essays in which teachers, historians, philosophers and businessmen argue education has been impoverished by a narrow curriculum”, which sounds interesting. (Here is the press release for the book.) I guess I’ll go out on a limb and wonder why his ideas are “ideological”, relative to perpetually teaching the Second World War; nevertheless, it promises to be an interesting debate and I look forward to seeing how the advocates of a more liberal and wide-ranging history education justify it.

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Posted (edited)

I am personally a pretty linear thinker, and chronological context matters to me. I had an adult learner reading student who had absolutely no concept of history, and developments of ideas and technology. She did not realize that we have not always had cars, for example. I had no idea how to teach someone whose fund of knowledge was so sparse.

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Edited by maddog

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Posted

All historical narratives are already ideological. It matters little whether its a chronological narrative or a Great Man theory, or a self-edifying, self-congratulatory narrative.

If every history (or historian, to be precise) is upfront with the ideology it presumes, then we will all be much better off.

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Posted

Personally, I'd like to know what exactly he means by "junk history," although I do think Holocaust lessons in history tend to be something of a joke that take unnecessary precedence over other aspects of the Second World War (and other topics). Apropos, Anne Frank tends to overshadow the rest of the Holocaust in British schools.

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Posted

When I was 14 and younger, I would have liked to see history teachers place more emphasis on battles, great military leaders, which medieval king would win in single combat, and methods of torture and execution. I mean, what 10 year old cares about the "western ascendancy", in terms of science and technology?

I think the reason kids here in the U.S. (like in the U.K.) learn about Anne Frank is that teachers think they (especially the girls, who don't see their gender get much air-time in most history classes) will like reading about kids their own age. I'm not sure they're wrong.

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Posted

Here is a follow-up to this story, with Ferguson interviewed in The Guardian (with some bad editing). It seems the UK government is going to ask him to "revitalise" the history curriculum and he plans to use computer games to explore counterfactuals; i.e. exploring what might have happened if a different course had been taken at various points in history. The interview briefly notes Antony Beevor's criticism of this approach, saying that "there's more than enough you need to learn about the basic structure before you start playing counterfactual", and epistemically this does seem quite a stretch: it's not clear why creating a branching structure to history would do anything but oversimplify or (of necessity) reduce complexity. Perhaps this will achieve the aim of making history more interesting but it might also implicitly support apologetic accounts unless the counterfactuals are developed in detail, with military, political and particularly economic history the focus instead of - or over and above - social and cultural history.

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Posted

I think though that trying to understand the causality behind historical events is probably most of the point of history, not merely to learn what happened, but to learn the significance of the events. If you want to attract people to become interested in history, you shouldn't evade it's more interesting aspects.

On the other hand, yeah I can see this turning out badly, with the official interpretation of history leading students to understand history that serves particular interests. You would want to teach students alternative interpretations of history, and give them some of the tools for comparing them, but then we run into "they're just students and aren't even majoring in history."

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Posted (edited)

I realize this thread is a year old but I'm just coming across it now. Steven Ozment wrote in A Mighty Fortress that, "Even today a tour of German history can be a circular journey around a magnetic Nazi pole, mesmerizing the general public and distracting historians and politicians eager to move on". One of the challenges of European history, German history in particularly, is breaking free of the World War II orbit.

I agree that a chronological framework would be best. I know there are many historians that would rather teach thematically (social/economic/cultural history) as opposed to a strict chronological narrative. But how can you appreciate the Renaissance if you don't understand the classics they were resurrecting? Or Martin Luther's appeals to Leo X unless you understand the history of the Catholic Church (and its abuses) prior to Luther? You can't have an appreciation for these things otherwise. Teaching thematically works I think, only once you already have a sense of the narrative. In short, I think history should be studied (at least early on) just as it occurred; chronologically.

Edited by JPlat

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Posted

I think history should be studied (at least early on) just as it occurred; chronologically.

Fair enough. From what date do you think the teaching should start?

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Posted (edited)

I realize this thread is a year old but I'm just coming across it now. Steven Ozment wrote in A Mighty Fortress that, "Even today a tour of German history can be a circular journey around a magnetic Nazi pole, mesmerizing the general public and distracting historians and politicians eager to move on". One of the challenges of European history, German history in particularly, is breaking free of the World War II orbit.

I agree that a chronological framework would be best. I know there are many historians that would rather teach thematically (social/economic/cultural history) as opposed to a strict chronological narrative. But how can you appreciate the Renaissance if you don't understand the classics they were resurrecting? Or Martin Luther's appeals to Leo X unless you understand the history of the Catholic Church (and its abuses) prior to Luther? You can't have an appreciation for these things otherwise. Teaching thematically works I think, only once you already have a sense of the narrative. In short, I think history should be studied (at least early on) just as it occurred; chronologically.

A fine idea, though it is necessary to take motive and method into account when determining how one should go about the teaching or study of history, or even historiography. There are schools of historians who would argue that there are more important goals for the historian to consider than merely constructing a linear narrative that the layperson could follow to the extent that they understand or appreciate the decisions the players made in the conclusion.

To the Empiricists, the bare facts (sans theorising, speculation, or individual interpretations) are the most essential things to consider, and if these are revealed more easily with a narrative approach, a narrative is best adopted; if the narrative is unnecessary to discover these concrete truths of the past, the narrative is unnecessary*. To the Marxists, history of a study of the ordinary people, rather than the monarchs and politicians who ruled them is the key motive, even if it requires a somewhat-disjointed narrative -IOW, a history-from-below approach was preferable for historians such as E.P Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. To the Annales school, history is more a scientific study of past society than a story of the past per se. Even to the historians of the future, questions must be asked. Are they studying the event/period to understand it in the context of its own time, or are they attempting to learn how it relates to the world of today? Is it really always important to study a preceding event to understand or appreciate one that occurred later? One need not have read Ovid to appreciate Shakespeare.

To use a better example, suppose one learnt about the horrific conditions and abuses blacks were subject to during the Atlantic Slave Trade, and then they learnt about the occurrence of the American Civil War, particularly the Battle of Antietam in 1862, which allowed Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Such a student would conclude that the proclamation was the result of a benevolent man who was trying to do what he could to make blacks and white free and equal on American soil. Unless by accident of discovering more information, they might not even consider Lincoln's true motives behind the proclamation (which was to draft black soldiers into the Union Army, thus gaining an advantage of numbers of the Confederates), and the student's understanding of the development of race-relations in America, the importance and significance of various battles and characters in the American Civil War, and the final days of slavery, would be drastically skewed. The student could better learn and understand such things by studying what happened around the country (and what was said) during and after the famous events of 1864 than they could by studying the Atlantic Slave Trade or the early days of the war.

There are other motives to take into account, as well, when teaching history. Do we want the students to simply know what happened in a particular place and time? Do we want them to attempt to interpret the whys and wherefores (and possible implications) of the event? Will there be times when it is required of them to consider how the event/s would have been interpreted or judged by different observers? Will it always be necessary for students to learn about Event A so that they can appreciate Event B, or is it only important that they know that Event B happened, with Event A being something they can learn if they choose to take further study in the field of history? If learning about Event A (and its significance vis-a-vis Event B ) ASAP is a necessity, then do they need to learn about the event before Event A, the event before that, etc?

Even though many -I would venture to say most- historians prefer a narrative approach to history, there are problems with it. One must be clear beforehand whether one is going to be teaching or studying a micro narrative, a grand narrative, a master narrative, or a meta narrative, and then adequate preparation must be made. If a meta narrative, how much of our past (or the past of another people/s) will this narrative cover? Are there multiple related narratives that need to be taken into account, and is there enough time in the lesson, semester, or year to cover them? Stretching the narrative too far can result in it becoming too linear and straightforward, with many important branching narratives not getting the depth of study required to fully understand the event/s or period/s of history being taught/studied; this can result in students making post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies when arguing why things may have happened the way they did. Also, narrative history tends to be descriptive, rather than analytical. This is not actually a problem in itself, especially at the baser levels of historical study, but there are times during which an analytical method of study is essential. and a straightforward, descriptive narrative will simply not do at such a time.

Narrative is often necessary to re-create the past, to know what happened, but a serious study of history requires us to interpret the past, to understand why it happened, and in such a case, an analytical study of the past aids us more than a narrative, descriptive one. Placing events in their correct sequence does not always settle the relationship between them.

So, while a narrative approach is important during certain stages of historical study, it is not without its flaws, and if such an approach is to be taken, it requires a skilled and professional approach.

* N.B. here I talk about the grand, master, and meta narratives, whichJplat has typed about, and which would include an analysis, or at least an observation, of how an event or a series of events lead to another over a considerable period of time, rather than the micro narrative, which could be ML's appeals to Leo X without a study of what occurred beforehand.

Edited by DaveT
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Posted

I think history should be studied (at least early on) just as it occurred; chronologically.

An obvious objection to this is of course that there is simply "too much" history, so to speak, to provide a chronological account. We have to leave things out and hence impose a narrative in order to make sense of history; in particular, to explain why x led to or contributed to y, we have to exclude the chronologically interspersed history that we deem irrelevant or insufficiently relevant.

On a tangentially related note, it seems to me that there are also epistemic concerns with Ferguson's desire to explore counter-factuals. It is one thing to consider an historical episode and claim that factor A contributed to event B, since we reason from A to try and understand its influence; but it is another to alter A while assuming that other things remain equal, thereby inferring a counter-factual episode. This may be where a thematic approach is needed to supplement the chronological account.

In any case, as DaveT points out, it's not clear what the value of chronological teaching is, or why students need to learn less about more rather than more about less (although that may be an uncharitable way to put it). I suppose it depends on what history is taught for.

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Posted (edited)

I agree that it's not a good thing to learn less about more. What I'm saying is that at the high school or undergraduate level you need to have a sense of scope. You need to understand the historical narrative in my opinion in order to be able to understand at a deeper level later on. For example, imagine getting to graduate school as a European history student and studying the social impact of the French Revolution when you've never covered the French Revolution or the Enlightenment at undergrad. You'd be totally out of your depth.

Case in point, I read The Russian Revolution by Shiela Fitzpatrick recently. I had heard that it was one of the best introductory texts on the Russian Revolution. Keep in mind, that I had never read anything on the Russian Revolution and didn't really know anything about it. The book, though only 200 pages, was basically an exposition on the causes and implications of the Revolution. In short, it was great introductory study assuming you already knew the facts. I did not, so I found myself fumbling around a bit.

My own personal style is to understand the event or period at an overview level first (to get a sense of scope) then do the deep dive. As another example, I read Gordon Craig's Germany 1866-1945 and The Germans, as well as Steven Ozment's A Mighty Fortress, before doing a deeper dive into the Reformation or Sonderweg theory for example. I agree that thematic study has it's uses; I myself am very interested in cultural and intellectual history. But how could a student understand the impact of modernity on Weimar Germany and why the conservatives longed for the time of Bismarck without knowing who Bismarck was and why that time was preferable?

Edited by JPlat

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Posted (edited)

I agree that it's not a good thing to learn less about more. What I'm saying is that at the high school or undergraduate level you need to have a sense of scope. You need to understand the historical narrative in my opinion in order to be able to understand at a deeper level later on.

Just to let everyone know, as a soon to be former high school student there are many varied curriculums and we do learn a great deal about historical scope. My history education from the 6th grade ownward is below, and this is with the main focus of the year in parentheses:

6th Grade Ancient History (Egyptians + Sumer + Aztecs) development of these early civilizations

7th Grade Classical History (Rome + Greece + Carthage) culture, development and lifespan of the three

8th Grade American History (America lol) Pilgrims -> Civil War

9th Grade Ancient History "zoomed out", neolithic age, developments that led to civilization

10th Grade American History Pilgrims -> End of Cold War emphasis on dates and American perspective

11th Grade European History (Revolutions + Dictators) 1850ish Russia (end of serfdom) -> Eve of WW2 with emphasis on how the many events contributed to rise of wars and revolutions ie: 3 russian revolutions 1905, 1917 feb/march, 1917 oct/nov, spanish civil war, weimar germany, hitler's germany, mussolini's italy, tsarist russia, ww1 with emphasis on the treaties and the causes rather than the course of the war.

12th Grade Modern World History (Conflict + Perspectives)WW2, rise of cold war w/ emphasis on schools of thought over why it happened, Arab-Israeli conflict why the conflict exists and it's affect on IR, cold war proper, and overall examination of how war has evolved from ww1 with the 10mph tanks to the superfast aircraft of today and how military doctrine has changed accordingly.

Note: Public school curriculum in America, but the last two years were part of the International Baccalaureate program from Geneva + Cardiff.

Is this the scope necessary, or should there be a change, besides the overlap occasionally?

Edited by Meursault

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Posted

On a tangentially related note, it seems to me that there are also epistemic concerns with Ferguson's desire to explore counter-factuals. It is one thing to consider an historical episode and claim that factor A contributed to event B, since we reason from A to try and understand its influence; but it is another to alter A while assuming that other things remain equal, thereby inferring a counter-factual episode. This may be where a thematic approach is needed to supplement the chronological account.

Fiction is a pleasant subject. I enjoyed a book called, "If the South had won the Civil War."

Perhaps it should be taught in a creative writing class? But there is no end to the "If's" of history.

In any case, as DaveT points out, it's not clear what the value of chronological teaching is, or why students need to learn less about more rather than more about less (although that may be an uncharitable way to put it). I suppose it depends on what history is taught for.

This is the heart of the question. Why DO we teach history? In my opinion, it's taught to make the citizenry of the country able to make informed decisions for the present, based on a knowledge of actual events and their outcomes. And no doubt modern history classes do a terrible job of this, at least in the United States.

There may be no perfect way to teach history. This is especially true considering the limited amount of emphasis primary schools give it. But, all things considered, a chronological approach is probably the most reasonable alternative.

Dave

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