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A Modest Proposal for the Teaching of History January 25, 2010

Posted by Bill in Schools, Uncategorized.
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My dearly beloved, otherwise known as Bill, is reading a book called THE GREAT UPHEAVAL by Jay Winik. The book discusses the invention of America in context with events going on in other parts of the world at the time or the revolution. It is a great book- he says- because nothing happens in a vacuum and it really allows the reader to see the significance of what is happening in the world at the time of our Revolution– and the effect of our fight for freedom upon other areas.

In listening to him talk about the book, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that the way in which we teach history to American schoolchildren is all wrong. In elementary school they start out with a year of state history and then a year of US History, then of World History. They then start over again in  Middle School with the same sequence and finally in High School they start over once again.

When studying US History, they spend about a third of the year on the exploration and colonization of America, then move very quickly through the Civil War and Reconstruction and maybe, if they are lucky, they get to the Viet Nam War before the end of the year. There is just too much to cover in too short a space of time.

Not only is there too much to cover in a short period of time, but this method of teaching makes it seem as though the history of each continent is a discrete entity with no relationship to anything else that is going on in the world. Yet, everything is interrelated. Our current quagmire in Iraq stems back to our history in placing the Shah of Iran on the throne and to the British partition of Israel after WW II and to the colonialism of the late 1800’s.

World War II had its roots in the Weimar Republic which had its roots in the harsh conditions imposed on Germany by the allies after WW I which had its roots on German European history stemming back to the 1800’s.

And the break between Britain and the Catholic church did not come about ONLY because Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Katharine of Aragon, but stemmed back into the history of protestantism.

It seems to me that rather than teaching history as a discrete study of individual nations or continents, it would be more effective to take blocks of time and study what is going on across the entire world during that time period. Devote a year to studying Ancient History and learn about the importance of Mesopotamia, the advanced Japanese civilization and ancient Rome.

Move on to the Middle Ages, the Islamic golden age, the Renaissance, the Asian dynasties and the Indian empires. The move into the early modern era, the 16-18th centuries and finally into the modern era and the post modern era.

There would be many advantages to this mode of organization– it would satisfy the needs of cultural diversity. Students of all various heritages would learn not just the Euro-American view of history but would learn the contributions to history of all parts of the world. They would better be able to examine cause and effect and see the continuity of how one period of history feeds into another.

And it would allow students to apply what they learn in history to other areas of study– at the same time that they are studying the Middle Ages in history, they could be learning about art and history in the Middle Ages, or literature from that era. It would give them a much richer base of knowledge and a better understanding of the arts. Reading AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser is so much more relevant when learning about the Industrial Revolution, for instance.

At this time a curriculum committee appointed by the Texas Board of education is making decisions about what students in Texas will learn about in history classes for the next ten years. Given that these are political appointees who, for the most part, have few credentials in history or social studies, and who seem more concerned with putting a Christian-centric view of history into the curriculum, I’m not real optimistic that history education will improve in Texas over the next ten years. But if anybody is really interested in trying to change the way history is taught, they might consider looking at a curriculum organized by time periods worldwide. Forget studying one continent per year and focus on one era at a time. Maybe then our kids will grow up and actually STOP repeating the mistakes of the past.



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