Those who don’t know history

James Sweet’s recent piece in Perspectives on History, “Is History History”, reminded me of this old post.

Why do some history teachers hate history?

There’s a lot about history that Edweek’s Greg Milo doesn’t like. He doesn’t like history books that cover 5,000 years of history, from the origins of civilization to the present day. Though he realizes it’s important for understanding the emergence of the Renaissance, he isn’t “much into” the Middle Ages. And he’s guessing that “many kids” don’t care about da Vinci, the Roaring Twenties, or “any of this history.”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Greg Milo is a high school history teacher—or that he’s been at it for the last 13 years.

“How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?” Milo’s students have asked. Somehow, Milo has conveyed to them (or failed to disabuse them of the notion) that things are worth learning only if they have this sort of practical value.

Of course, some stuff is so boring you’d only want to learn it if it’s relevant to/necessary for real life functioning. For example, how to fill out a tax form; how to file an insurance claim; how to test software on iTunes; or how to adjust to the latest Microsoft Browser (which includes such fascinating revelations as: you can’t send attachments in Internet Edge; to do that you have to click on the three dots on the upper right corner and select “open with Internet Explorer”).

Compared with such narrow practical tasks, which are often ridiculously arbitrary and unenlightening in their specific details, history, for most ordinary humans, holds a great deal of interesting content: content that spans the Middle Ages to the Roaring Twenties; nay, from the origins of civilization through to the present day.

But for Milo, history is worth learning only if it strengthens students’ all-purpose thinking skills; only if it helps them make “reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event,” “understand a decision’s consequences,” and act accordingly as “participating citizens.”

Given that students, as Milo notes, can practice such decision making skills “with any subject—not a boring one,” we’re left wondering what makes particular subjects within history boring.

This post is getting long, so I’ll end here, on this cliff hanger. Stay tuned for Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part II.I’ll re-post Part II in a few days.

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