Friday, December 27, 2013

We do not teach 'the past'

Building on the ideas discussed in my last two blog posts….

An historical account or interpretation is an attempt to answer certain questions about the past. Questioning is at the heart of historical studies, yet in so many classes students do not ask questions, or the questions they do ask are discarded quickly. If you make no other change to your teaching, start framing your units and lessons around big questions. Stanford historical education group provides an excellent example of this approach.

Students do not walk into our classes thinking about historical evidence and accounts of the past. Instead, they think that history class is about the past. And your job, as their history teacher, is to teach them about the past. Questions probing the nature of the construction of historical knowledge are often non existent. It is our job, as thoughtful instructors, to shine a light on this process in developmentally appropriate ways. 

Students need to be taught that the past and historical accounts of the past, while connected, are different.

An account of the past may be based on one or more sources. Though just having more sources doesn’t guarantee a quality historical account. The fewer sources an account is based on, the more skepticism we ought to bring to the conclusions embedded in that account.  

Since all sources contain certain biases, all historical accounts are colored with multiple biases as well. The biases of individual sources, it must be noted, interact with each other. Like a cook creating a meal, individual ingredients, in this case sources, are combined to create something new, an account of the past. The account itself assumes characteristics that may or may not be contained in any one of its parts.    

The work of an historian, as opposed to a propagandist or a writer of fiction, is to create historical accounts that answer questions about the past using credible (Note: credible does not mean unbiased) sources and methods.

Imagine two historians making claims about James Madison. Some questions, such as those about his birth, schools attended, and employment history, are not likely to differ much from historian to historian. When historians provide competing answers to these kinds of questions, the sources used may be at the root of any discrepancies.  

Other questions, however, such as the impact certain people or events had on Madison or vice versa, are much more debatable. Two historians working with the same sources may differ considerably in the judgments they make about the significance and meaning of the sources. This is where historians’ critical and creative faculties are entangled in ways that students rarely appreciate.   

It is necessary to teach students that though all historical sources are biased, all historical accounts are not equal.

Some historical accounts are better than others based not only on the quantity and quality of the sources used but also on how the sources are used. It is essential to scrutinize the inferences and conclusions that historians make. Are the sources underpinning an account credible, and do they truly support the historical arguments made?      

If our students only look at sources in isolation, even if they are rigorously examining them for bias, we are only skimming the surface of the discipline and of the thinking performed by historians.

We must teach our students to deconstruct historical accounts. And we must also put students in positions to construct historical accounts of their own.

A teacher who views his role as ‘simply teaching students the truth about the past’ is ignoring a tremendous opportunity to push students to hone a number of valuable critical and creative thinking skills.

Where to begin?

Starting with examples and discussions that focus on the nature of remembering seem like a good place to begin. Students need to be shown that the ‘truth about the past’ is anything but simple. Even for events that they participated in, the act of remembering what happened is inherently fragmented and incomplete. Don’t just tell students this, prove it to them. Help students to see that historians rarely have witnessed the events or met the people they are writing about, complicating matters exponentially.      


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