J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

“Skills and understandings that are unique to the discipline”

Last month Abby Reisman spoke at the National Council for Social Studies meeting about her experiments in teaching U.S. history to high school juniors. Craig Thurtell’s report on that talk for the History News Network listed Reisman’s theoretical bases:

One premise of this approach holds that history requires the application of certain cognitive skills and understandings that are unique to the discipline.

A second premise is that these skills are neither natural nor intuitive; on the contrary, to be learned effectively, they require an explicit naming and repetitive use. They must be incorporated into history curricula as an essential component of historical understanding.

Another premise is that when students approach history as an inquiry-based enterprise, they come to grasp that history is not a single story, but a contested one, and they can, once they have mastered the skills, make their own meaning out of the evidence left to us by the past.

With this understanding, the study of history can actually provoke excitement—the late Roy Rosenzweig’s nationwide survey of attitudes toward history classes found that “boring” was the most common word associated with the subject.
I was particularly struck by the assumption that the skills for studying history don’t come naturally. But surely after a certain age (and Piagetian stage) we learn that life is “not a single story, but a contested one.” We learn that the same events appear differently to different people because of incomplete knowledge, competing desires, divergent attitudes, and other factors. Is it actually counterintuitive to apply the same thinking to the past?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps we want our past to be more stable and uncontested than our present. We can tolerate uncertainty in the present because we believe that time will bring enough knowledge to settle the contest of views. The present may be unfolding, we acknowledge, but the past should be bound in a narrative.

That desire for solidity might be particularly strong when it comes to the past that’s shaped our collective identity and is therefore most likely to be taught in our schools. In other words, it’s all very well to admit that the history of Serbo-Croatian mining claims is contested, but many Americans want the history of the U.S. Constitution to be rock-solid.

Another detail:
Reisman emphasized that she often found it necessary to modify the language in documents to make them accessible to struggling readers. She acknowledged that this practice is controversial, with many (this writer included) fearing the damage to the “pastness” and integrity of historical documents. Reisman argued pragmatically that the use of documents, crucial to any interrogation of the past, would be rendered impossible for struggling readers without modification.
I wrestle with the same questions here. I preserve spelling, capitalization, and punctuation from sources I quote. However, for this online format I have to alter the style of emphases and abbreviations. And, as in the first passage quoted in this posting, I sometimes break long paragraphs to make them easier to read on the web. Because when I read stuff on the web, I often have even less patience than I did as a high-school junior.


rfuller said...

As someone who has been a history teacher in a high school, as well as works with history every day both before the public and in research, I have found that most people don't care about history until they grow up and see how the rest of the world's actions affect them. With maturity also comes empathy, and they become curious about how history affected others before them. Secondly, a school teacher teaching about the American Revolution cannot compete with the visceral graphics of Hollywood movies such as -dare I say it- "The Patriot", even though the product presented therein has about as much to do with history as dancing is to architecture. Therefore, many people remember their grade school history classes as dry and boring, unless they had an engaging instructor who was willing to buck the system, AKA the approved curriculum and its schedule, in order to make it exciting for them. (I did have such teachers occasionally, but I'd been fascinated by history since a very early age, so, good instructors were a plus.)

G. Lovely said...

Like most disciplines, history requires a fair grasp of the basic elements before more fascinating concepts can be entertained. Since attaining that threshold framework(dry facts) is too high for most, aside from those already attracted to the teachings of the past, we default to half-baked myths supporting the dominant culture and call it History.

I fear that Sarah Palin world view is not an exception, but close to the norm. Fighting misinformation is a lonely but noble pursuit, and I thank you Mr. Bell, and others, for their unstinting effort to preserve a measure of accuracy, objectivity, and balance.

Aaron Eyler said...

I find that the skills we are all commenting on boil down to a cyclical problem with the way teachers who are in post-secondary History-Education programs are being taught.

Individuals who come out with a major in History with an endorsement for Education have a much easier time teaching historical thinking skills and helping kids to develop their own historiography. Those that major in Education and have a minor in History don't have enough exposure to professors who are acting historians, which means they don't engage in enough discussion of what historians actually do.

When the latter gets in front of a classroom, they're emphasis is on factoids and the dissemination of content as opposed to teaching kids to think historically.

Even if a student has one teacher who spends time discussing what historians do and how they attack sources to construct a meaningful past, the damage of the other twelve teachers can't be undone.

I'm aware that this is a lot of generalizing, but more and more, I can't help myself from feeling like its accurate.