Teaching History

The articles from the selected chapter deal with different problems in education. Among the problems discussed by the authors is the lack of interest to studies, namely, history. James W. Loewen and Mark Edmundsen discuss the problem in detail. Loewen believes that textbooks are the major source of the problem, but I cannot completely agree with his opinion for several reasons.

James W. Loewen starts his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” (1996) with the statement “High school students hate history” (Loewen 384). In many ways, this statement predetermines the general tone and idea of the entire text. Trying to analyze the reasons of such attitude and the reasons why history has become “the most irrelevant” of twenty-one subjects usually taught in high school, Loewen comes to a series of conclusions, which refer not only to history as a subject but also to the methods and goals of education, in general.

According to Loewen, many teachers are facing low morale in their classrooms. If they have an opportunity, they abandon the “overstuffed textbooks” and invent their own history courses. This fact points to the main problem – the current methods of teaching are wrong or irrelevant. History is a very important subject. Loewen, for example, argues that there is no need to convince us of the importance of American history because it is about us (386). I agree with this assumption, but I think history is far more than that. Our time has shown that the most extensive knowledge and skills necessary in today’s world can be found in history. The main skill is the ability to work with text. History is about analyzing primary sources, that is, texts. Thus, a person studying history gains experience working with historical information. However, what can be considered as historical information? In fact, the modern media text is nothing but a historical source. News, television and radio, newspaper texts, even advertisements are the sources of historical information. In his article “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”, Mark Edmundsen argues that students have lost interest to study because of consumerism; as he says, they are “the progeny of 100 cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets” (Edmundsen 325). Nevertheless, if we look deeper, any art, movie or documentary brings up historical information and is a historical source. Therefore, learning history is not the same as memorizing facts but gaining the ability to critically “consume” information from the world around us.

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History is interesting, and the popularity of historical novels, movies, and even computer games easily proves this assumption. Fantasy, as one of the most popular genres, is just an alternative history. Then why isn’t history popular in schools? Loewen argues that the teaching of history, more than any other subject, is dominated by textbooks. He agrees with students that the books are boring (Loewen 386). According to Loewen, textbook stories are predictable, and there is no conflict or real suspense. Students know that everything will be fine at the end, which reduces their interest in reading. I cannot agree with that. First, the absolute majority of Hollywood products have a happy end, and the audience knows for sure that the main hero will struggle and win. In other words, the good guys always beat the bad guys, but this situation does not make the movie less popular. Second, and more important, history has few stories to a happy end. History is a succession of wars, terror and mistakes. In his work, Loewen mocks George Santayana’s famous words: “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In Loewen’s version, they are condemned to repeat the eleventh grade. The goal of history is to teach people not to repeat their mistakes because success is always unique and mistakes are common.

Loewen’s essay presents an amazing controversy: “textbooks almost never use the present to illuminate the past” and “textbooks seldom use the past to illuminate the present” (Loewen 387). This, in my opinion, is the main drawback of history lessons. Students who compare the past to the present not only develop critical thinking skills but also see how the events of even the most distant epochs influence their lives. In the article “Other Voices, Other Rooms”, Gerald Graff argues that contrast is essential for understanding because no subject, idea, or text is truthful (Graff 340). I would say, contrast and comparison. Loewen claims that students exit history textbooks without acquiring the skill to think reasonably about social life (Loewen 388). Here comes another goal of history – to make students understand that the current state of things (economy, politics, and culture) has its roots in the past and the objects of everyday life do not appear suddenly. It is also important to know that, often, the most innovative ideas of these days have copies or parallels in the past. For example, the idea of the helicopter designed in the twentieth century originates from the 15th century drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. A typewriter was already used in Ancient Rome in the 1st century A.D. Also, people go to the church, because the Jews defeated the Philistines three thousand years ago.

Another problem with history in schools, according to Loewen, is its optimism and patriotism. Though he agrees that optimism is admissible, it can be something of a burden for students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who can see the lack of female historical figures, or those who have not achieved socioeconomic success (Loewen 387). Indeed, the power of the American state is built on the bones of Indians and Africans, and its economic supremacy does not mean anything to the 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S. At the same time, the history of America has seen a courageous struggle of Native Americans without any hope for victory, and a no less courageous movement for equal rights. Therefore, I think, there is nothing wrong with optimism and patriotism.

Loewen blames textbooks for being too huge: “American history textbooks are full of information – overly full” (Loewen 387). It leads to a disappointing result, when students learn the answers to test questions after each chapter and then forget the learned material, as they are preparing for the next test. Apparently, Lowen sees the solution to this problem in adding primary sources that document the past, for instance, photographs, letters, or articles. This sounds as a good idea, but it will make history textbooks even larger. Omitting some facts from history in order to pay more attention to other facts is not an answer, as well. Loewen does not offer his vision of an ideal textbook; he only complains that they are overloaded with facts and “keep students in the dark about the nature of history” (Loewen 389). Yet, history is about facts. Therefore, in my opinion, and ideal textbook, especially in history, cannot be created. I think, a textbook should only serve as a support for a teacher who can make any lesson interesting to students.

In fact, the sketchy and fragmented material in modern history textbooks suggests that there should always be an opportunity for the teacher to “complete” the content by using additional learning tools. These may include various historical sources selected by the teacher or present his own vision. For example, Loewen tells the story of the first Thanksgiving and says that the textbook contains only legends. I think students could be interested in learning about this subject and see how their teacher tries to challenge the official version. They can even investigate this case on their own, and it will be interesting. The skills and abilities of students in the field of research and critical reflection can become an independent method of teaching history at school.

Still, I consider that the most important moment in teaching history, as well as other subjects, is generating interest. In her lessons, Deborah Tannen uses personal anecdotes to illustrate the phenomena under discussion and encourages the creation of students’ anecdotes and their critical judgments (Tannen 345). Mark Edmundson argues that he does not teach “to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting” (Edmundson 323). He uses “off-the-wall questions and the sidebar jokes” as lead-ins to serious material, which otherwise will be dull for the students. These are all possible solutions to the problem of huge dull textbooks and the lack of interest in the history subject. Taking into account the above stated assumptions, one can come to a conclusion that Loewen’s opinion concerning textbooks is not entirely objective. In history, as well as in other subjects, the teacher plays the most important role.

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