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Why I Teach History: A Meme From Our Colleagues at the AFT

January 21, 2008, 12:39 pm

Craig Smith over at Free Exchange on Campus tagged me for a meme last week that was begun inadvertently by one of my early favorites in the blogosphere, Dr. Crazy, with this post. Free Exchange on Campus is a site maintained by the American Federation of Teachers and, as Craig explained, exists in part to break into the monotonous Horowitzean rhetoric that produces teaching as a commodity exchange between teacher and student. So the idea is to answer the question “Why I teach (subject)” and then tag up five other bloggers. You can have as many, or as few, reasons as you like. And what better time than the beginning of the semester, in the middle of what is for some of us the dead of winter, to spread such an optimistic meme?

So here goes. I (love) teach(ing) history because:

It makes sense of what can often be a chaotic and frightening world, and I offer it to my students in that spirit. Why things happen strikes me as a persistently interesting and useful question that is not fully answered by social theories, representational logic or by market-based thinking. It puts human reason at the center of events, sometimes in ways that can valorize the best aspects of of what it means to be a sentient being in the world, and sometimes helping us come to terms with the worst things people can do. In history, although some people are leaders and others live obscure lives, no one is insignificant.

I like to watch students awaken to the fact that history is fun. Because history is incredibly fun for me, and I like to share that with others. Honestly, I think this is something that can span the range of what counts as college teaching, from community college to Ivy League. History is often taught in rote form at the secondary level and, despite the dedication and brilliance of many high school teachers, that will be even more the case until we get away from standardized testing and its various mandates. Why, just today the New York Times tells us that, not content with punishing entire schools for conditions in their student body and a lack of resources that they can’t control, teachers in New York City will be evaluated primarily on whether they improve the test scores of their students: read about it here. High Stakes testing for students = High Stakes evaluation for teachers. More facts (some of which are wrong, if you have ever seen the tests), less critical thinking (not conducive to multiple choice tests, don’tcha know.) And no fun for students. So at the college level, we are on the front lines now in teaching critical thought, and we have a lot of work to do just to get our students to imagine that history isn’t a chore. Often one of my biggest thrills of the semester is reading the evaluations that say: “I used to hate history, but now I am going to be a history major.” Or, “I used to hate history, and I am still pre-med, but I am going to take more history courses.” So limited as my audience is, I consider teaching history to be a form of intellectual activism and and a public service.

Because it helps students who feel invisible or inarticulate among other students talk about their own ideas, become part of our community, and take a big step towards becoming engaged intellectuals. At a school like Zenith, this can often mean students from poor families in a population that is mostly made up of very privileged people; conservative students on a liberal campus, who are often reduced to bromides and declarations of belief to be heard at all; students of faith who are operating in an atmosphere that often implicitly or actively de-values religion as not rational, and therefore unworthy; leftist students who can be heard on a liberal campus, but who often have more enthusiasm for the causes they espouse than they have the necessary knowledge about those causes, knowledge that might empower them to take action or get work in politics rather than just tell other people what to think and what to do. For all of these students — and more — making the connection between their college education and their life’s work as adults can be one of the great contributions that any teacher can make.

Because, like literature, history is not just scholarship, but an ordinary thing that is marketed as entertainment to a heterogeneous audience. Most of my students will not be professional historians, but if I do my job right they will have a set of tools for thinking about the “history” they will be bombarded with in the world. They can use those tools in their work and/or derive an enhanced pleasure from history for the rest of their lives. I suspect his is true of other fields as well, but I am continually struck by the number of situations I am in where, in response to me admitting that I teach history, someone lights up and says, “I was a history major!” or “I love history!” Your average Joe usually has a particular topic he loves, which — nine times out of ten — is either the Civil War or World War II, but so what? The point is that this person is a reader and a thinker, for whom the past has great meaning.

Because I honestly think that history matters, and that it is a continuing resource for making moral, ethical, political and strategic decisions. When I ask my students why we should study history, one of them always says, “So we don’t make the same mistakes we made in the past.” But the truth is “we” often do make the same mistakes we made in the past (Vietnam —> Iraq; Korea—>Iraq; suppression of leftists in El Salvador—>Iraq), and recognizing these patterns is important to forms of individual empowerment that are crucial to organizing. In other words, knowing how to think critically about the past can help us take action as citizens in the present. I think it is also relevant for citizens to be educated enough so that they know when someone powerful — like Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama — doesn’t seem to get it (in his “clarifying” remarks about why he admires Ronald Reagan) that Reagan was able to mobilize Democrats to vote Republican because he tapped into long-standing rage about affirmative action among working-class whites, who didn’t want blacks in their schools, neighborhoods or unions. Now here is someone who could use a good historian on his staff.

Because teaching history allows me to know what young people are thinking about. Need I elaborate on what a gift this is?

I am tagging up: Gayprof, Mixed Race America, Historiann, Clio Bluestocking, and Tim Lacy.

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