Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Textbook in Our Heads

Of late, I have found myself on reddit, reading various posts to the askhistorians group. This week, these two posts have stood out, exploring reasons to study the past.

This one focuses particularly on the study of history against the backdrop of postmodernism. And this one is more general, a student who is questioning whether his choice to major in history makes sense.

The quality of comments and the depth of the answers, at least on this subreddit, is appealing.

It is quite jarring, I think, for a person who has become accustomed to thinking about the past in binary terms- true or false- to entertain the idea that much of what historians do is subjective, despite the methods of the discipline.

Much of what I have come to think of as good or quality history teaching boils down to helping students explore the nuances of the discipline, its interpretive layers.

At the very least, as a teacher, once you grasp that history is never as simple as ‘just the facts’, you ought to stop trying to spoon feed students facts for recall and start teaching disciplinary concepts that revolve around argument construction and using sources as evidence.

Going back and reading these last few sentences, I can see that I take it for granted that once you grasp that a just the facts notion of studying history is inadequate and not even tenable intellectually, a teacher will move away from it and embrace the interpretive, seemingly more subjective, realm. In fact, I don’t think this is the case. Why?

It’s a major paradigm shift, and, as far as I can tell, students need to be led carefully down the winding corridors of epistemology. It is much easier for a teacher to look at the curriculum guide, count the textbook pages and days, cue up the well worn powerpoint slides, and start teaching. Most parties involved are quite comfortable with this approach to teaching about the past. 

Those in the classroom, as well as those outside of it- colleagues, parents, administrators, the media- often derive great comfort from the traditional narrative arcs embedded in textbooks and History channel docudramas.   


  1. Thoughtful post!
    I tell my students that if they're not uncomfortable, they're not *really * learning. I've had success with an exercise where I have them write a history of how they got to college-then we talk about the choices they made and interrogate those decisions. Why'd you include this but not that? Why did you choose to narrate in chronological order? How did length and format affect your writing? And so on. Even choosing a topic prioritizes some historical material as privileged (more "significant") than others. It's pretty powerful to experience those epistemological dilemmas for themselves. Then they're able to get at the metacognitive nature of thinking historically, as we transition the discussion to the choices, etc., their textbook authors made. It's a nice point to return to frequently throughout the term. It's a bit stressful for them at first ("just tell me what happened!), but they actually wrap their heads around the subjectivity of it all. But you have to push them to let go of the easy narrative.

  2. Hi Kevin, thanks for taking a look and commenting! What courses do you teach?