May 26 • 11:24 AM

Bring life to history

July 02, 2008
Not long ago the son of a fellow Imlay City Rotary Club member came over to interview me about the Kennedy assassination and how it affected those of my generation. I enjoyed the experience although I was somewhat taken aback by the realization that my age had somehow designated me as some kind of human historical marker, sort of like one of the tribal elders passing on its oral tradition.

I don't know if the young man's interest in history will continue but a report released last year showed that among 14,000 seniors and college freshman at 50 American colleges tested on some basics of American history and civics the average score was 52%.

In February 2008 43% of teenagers in another survey knew the Civil War was fought somewhere between 1850 and 1900. At first glance one might think these students are historically challenged but the truth of the matter is Americans do have a love affair with history but not the way in which it is taught.

Somehow, most of the time students are bludgeoned by names, dates and places which as we all know is not the real stuff of history. Somehow we have failed to make the connection between the idea that history is about real people and events rather than a litany of dates.

Having recently watched the HBO presentation 'John Adams,' based on David McCullough's prize-winning biography, I know that it is possible to make the subject interesting, although Hollywood has not always had a good track record in so far as accuracy is concerned. Consider Oliver Stone's JFK as a prime example

Somehow we have to learn there are better ways to teach history which neither drowns students in historical trivia or distorts the available facts. In short, teachers have to find a better way to make history come to life and connect it to everyday politics and current events and insure the soul of the subject, in the words of writer Kenneth C. Davis, is as vivid as possible.

In his book 'Don't Know Much About History' Mr. Davis makes the point that "if people only heard real stories of real people in real places, nobody could possibly claim to be bored by history." In a related article he gives the example in the middle of a history making presidential campaign there is nothing new about negative campaigning and cites the election of 1800 as an example. It was during this campaign that John Adams was "accused of sending his running mate to procure a pair of pretty girls as mistresses for each of them." Jefferson's critics meanwhile charged that if he were elected president adultery and incest would be practiced openly.

Now while stories such as these prove that human nature never really changes, the stuff of history is about real people and not "marble statues." Somehow though, the way we teach history today overlooks this idea.

If I were teaching history today I would try to keep this in mind but I would also observe some rules of the road while doing it. First of all I would strive to keep the lesson as objective as possible. Too often history has been used as propaganda allowing the stuff of history to become the means to grind some political axe either from the historian writing it or the teacher teaching it. Objectivity is impossible for a normal human being but at least we can be critical enough to be aware of how our own biases shape the message.

Secondly I would insist that there are many ways to teach history and present the subject to our students. Why not, for example, start in the 20th Century and work back using various themes to pull out the significance of the events we talk about.

The real value of the study of history is to provide students with a sense of perspective. We should use it as a means to develop critical skills for evaluating the significance of events and apply them to our own lives. The teachers I remember had the ability to bring their subject alive so the past was as much a part of us today as the present.

Today we seem so caught up in teaching to the test and meeting the requirements of such laws as No Child Left Behind that we forget we ought to be teaching, in a sense, for the ages, whatever the subject. That means giving something above and beyond to our students which will touch their lives long after they have graduated their formal education.

This is, I admit, a tall order. A failure to do so in education though means, in the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, "the teaching of inert ideas. Ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized or tested or thrown into fresh combinations…Education with inert ideas is not only useless; it is, above all things, harmful."

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