Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Teaching History

I got into a tangent on the last post on why I think history needs to be taught better. Specifically, I get annoyed by theorists in both political science and economics that seem to accept too readily that the 18th and 19th centuries are good models for long run theories of change that apply to modern times. I disagree with this and see the 18th and 19th centuries, with the addition of most of the 20th, to be an exception to larger historical trends and instead see them as a deviant case that can only be generalized from if one is very careful to assess whether or not the question being studied is part of the deviance of this era. We are moving back to a normal period from a transitional period and should not expect the rules of the transitional period to apply closely once we are outside it.

Back to the central topic, to avoid this historic myopia I think history teaching needs to be reframed so that it is not so much a simple listing of important facts, which is what my memories of history teaching in high school were of (it really is a wonder I love history so much after suffering through this), and is instead reframed around teaching around a broad topic. I'd like to see history taught around a theme of the development of the modern world and to use it to teach people about the differences of perspective and how different perspectives each give valuable insights, even if none can be singled out as correct.

Thus you'd teach multiple interpretations and approaches, not leaving out politically inconvenient ones like Marxism (though I'd hope its flaws are pointed out as well), to get students used to this style of thinking rather than continuing to suffer under the delusion that there are right interpretations. Instead get students used to the idea that different interpretations are of differing value depending on the questions being asked. Of course, it should also be taught that interpretations can be proven to be wrong, they simply cannot be proven to be right, and that all individual theories of development contain irreconcialable flaws, requiring the continued development of multiple perspectives. Specific topics I'd like to see carried on throughout high school history teaching are the development of the state, capitalism, and democracy with a gradual trend towards progressively more nuanced versions of the theories of each of these explored.

Probably too much to ask, and even more politically inconvenient than teaching economics, but this is what I'd love to see incorporated into high school teaching.

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