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.