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.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?
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.
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.
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.