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I just read part of an interesting discussion of history, and in… - Potted Plant [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Potted Plant

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[May. 13th, 2007|02:06 pm]
Potted Plant
I just read part of an interesting discussion of history, and in particular, how to teach it. If you go to the link, read the comments. That's where the interesting discussion is.

History, properly considered, is the study of how the world got the point it's at now. History, as it is often taught, is soulless and dead. I can't blame kids for tuning out on it. It is often taught at the elementary and high school level as a sequence of facts, beginning in the distant past, with little context and no analysis of how it impacts living people's lives. It's a little wonder anyone actually ever goes back to try to learn it.

World History classes start with Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Greece, and if they're like mine in school, end somewhere in the Middle Ages, with no direct connection to the present. Almost nothing is taught of Africa or Asia except for Mesopotamia and Egypt.

American History classes start with Columbus (and maybe a token discussion of pre-discovery eras), spend lots of time on things like the Whiskey Rebellion and the French and Indian War, and often end somewhere in the 19th century. I didn't have an American History class make it to the Civil War until the 8th grade, and I didn't have one reach beyond WWII until I took an AP class my senior year of high school. Once again, there is no link to the present, and no context for how any of the information is useful.

American History classes have the added sin of often getting important things wrong.

I always thought that a knowledge of history was built from the present and going backwards. You understand today by understanding yesterday, and then you understand yesterday by understanding the day before that. When I realized that and applied it to the problem of how to teach history, I came up with the idea of teaching it backwards. Not precisely backwards like the movie Memento. More like breaking up history into a series of discreet time periods and teaching the most recent one first.

If you're teaching American History, you might choose to break it up into categories of Pre-Revolution, Pre-Civil War, Pre-WWII, and Post-WWII. You would then teach from WWII to present, and when you were done, teach from Civil War to WWII, and then Revolution to Civil War. Finally, teach Pre-Revolutionary history. I'm not wedded to that particular breakdown, but you get the idea.

It would have the immediate benefit of teaching students the most directly relevant stuff first, just like all their other classes. You start Math by learning how to count, which is the most important thing you will ever learn about Math. Then you move on to addition, subtraction, then multiplication and division, then fractions, then basic geometry, then algebra, then trigonometry, and finally calculus (unless you go further). This follows the basic format of giving you the most basic and vital information first and then building on that.

You start English by learning the alphabet, then how to read, and then moving on to basic sentence structure, then paragraphs or story structure, then literature. Learn the most vital first, then build on that.

History is taught the opposite way. Teach the most distant and indirectly relevant stuff first, and likely never even get to the material that is the most directly relevant to people's lives. The solution is to start with the recent stuff and move backwards. Or at least, that's part of the solution.

The link above tells the story of someone who tried to do it backwards, and was ultimately forbidden from teaching history any more because the powers that be didn't understand it.

(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: pottedplant
2007-05-15 11:01 am (UTC)

Re: the second amendment

Oh, I agree with you that Anthropology is very interesting and important for understanding how the world got to be the way it is. The problem is that as far as I know there isn't a single public elementary or secondary school that teaches anthropology. Once again, if you think this is vitally important, our schools are failing at teaching it.

My point, and perhaps I painted it with too broad of a brush, is that high school and elementary school history classes spend precious time teaching a lot of material that is neither interesting nor particularly important.
I honestly think the entire period of time between, say The Louisiana Purchase and the election of Lincoln, could and should be taught in just a few days. There just isn't much that happened in that time that is of great importance other than the development of regional conflicts and the expansion of America. Get through it quickly and have more time for more important things.
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