Foner on Teaching History
By way of Michael Lynch at Past in the Present, David Cutler’s interview with Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Foner offers some worthwhile thoughts on the value of studying history, and why we’re mostly teaching it wrong:
Where should high-school teachers place more emphasis on the skills of history—the literary aspect of it, or the actual content? I respect what high-school teachers do enormously. They have a much harder job than we do at the college level. I think both are important. I’m strongly in favor of students knowing the facts of history, not just memorizing or having it drilled into their heads. I’m certainly against this testing mania that’s going on now where you can judge whether someone really understands history by their performance on a multiple-choice test. Knowledge of the events of history is important, obviously, but also I think what I see in college students, that seems to be lacking at least when they come into college, is writing experience. In other words, being able to write that little essay with an argument. I see that they think, “OK, there are the facts of history and that’s it—what more is there to be said?” But of course, the very selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation. You can’t just separate fact and interpretation quite as simply as many people seem to think. I would love to see students get a little more experience in trying to write history, and trying to understand why historical interpretation changes over time. Is an emphasis on rote memorization lessening student interest in history, and making the field seem less relevant to younger generations? I think it probably is. There are many reasons for that. I think there’s a general tendency in education nowadays toward what you might call the pragmatic side of education, which is fine. The students need to have jobs eventually, no question about it. But education is not just a vocational enterprise—teaching people the skills that will enable them to get jobs–although that’s obviously part of it. [We]’re also teaching citizens. We try to teach people the skills that come along with studying history. The skills of evaluating evidence, of posing questions and answering them, of writing, of mobilizing information in order to make an argument. I think all of that is important in a democratic society if people are actually going to be active citizens. Teaching to the test does not really encourage emphasis on those aspects of the study of history.
Foner’s pretty much dead-on in his critique. I’ve had some great history teachers over the years, but not a one of them before college, and I honestly wouldn’t give two cents for the educating I got in history — world history, U.S. history, Texas history — all the way through high school. Foner’s correct, as well, about the centrality of writing to the practice of history. Writing about historical events, in one form or another, really does seem to be the key to the whole business, as it (hopefully) forces one to think and articulate lucidly about complex and contentious subjects.
I need to write more.