“Hating history”–the power of telling stories and soliciting predictions

I see I used the word “story” in this re-post of part II of my “hating history” series. Nowadays, the buzzword is “narrative.”

But what I’ve come to think really matters is suspense. A good story can accomplish that, but so can a compelling question with no obvious, immediate answer: one posed at the beginning of class, with students hazarding guesses and with the clues to the answer slowly accumulating as class progresses.

And just as chronological presentations can help you remember things, so do predictions. Whether the answer confirms or contradicts your prediction, you’re more likely to remember it if something stoked your curiosity about it ahead of time and got you emotionally invested in what it would turn out to be.

Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part II

So, resuming where we left off in the previous post, below, what makes particular subjects within history boring?

Edweek’s Greg Milo explains that history is boring when it’s a pre-determined “chronology of topics” and students don’t have any choice over which ones to focus on. Apparently, different subtopics of history are intrinsically boring to different students. Perhaps some actually like the Middle Ages but despise the Renaissance. Some, Milo proposes, might prefer to learn about elections in Burundi rather than the fall of Rome.

Chronology, though, is the basis not just of history, but of story; and story is what most people are looking for. Who wants to read a non-chronological, theme-based version of Great ExpectationsThe Lord of the Rings or Gone Girl? The same goes for real-world events.

Chronology is also the basis for remembering things: it’s much easier to remember a series of events in sequence that as a bunch of isolated items. When it comes to a particular event, chronology helps you understand its significance—its historical significance, that is, along with its long and short-term causes and effects. (Most causes and effects, after all, unfold chronologically). Furthermore, following the standard chronology of a standard world history survey course, from beginning to end, ensures that students not only know about the Fall of Rome, but also about the notoriously neglected last hundred years, including the World War II and the Holocaust, about which so many students are so egregiously ignorant that some adults are trying to codify mandatory Holocaust instruction into state law.

Milo doesn’t just fault textbooks for being chronological; he faults them as well for treating certain topics too briefly; for “blowing through the specifics.” Because of this, textbooks are “missing out on the many variables that matter in understanding cause and effect” and failing to teach students how to make “reasoned decisions.” Milo also claims that textbooks “tend to dismiss the humanity of the subject—akin to telling a story with no main character.” Specific examples? Milo cites none.

In fact, plenty of textbooks do consider myriads of variables that underlie particular outcomes and do tell human-centered stories. But we’ve reached another cliff-hanger: stay tuned for Part III.

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