A History Teacher’s Dilemma

When you teach history at secondary schools, curriculum is the major focal point.  You’re trained early on to really make sure you noodle on the assignments and the material you teach, because schools don’t really have any tuppence to spare and wasting three days on a dumpster fire of a lesson or some sort of forum theater is considered to be a disservice to the tax-paying public who keep the lights on as well as to the students.  For most subjects there is a liturgy of standards that obligate the teacher to cover certain topics and certain materials, but for history the standards are decidedly vague.  As they should be, it should be added.
Image result for history standardsHistory is a broad, broad field that covers the entire human experience (depending on who you ask) from the origins of the species, the origin of the planet, or everything post-writing.  When queried about it, most history teachers answer in one of three veins:
1. That the subject can teach students necessary skills that they utilize in the world of the future (i.e. writing, research, reading, critical thinking, etc.).
2. That learning history is the most direct path to becoming a citizen of the world/citizen of the United States.
3. That history inspires people to learn from the past as an extension of their experiences in the present (like vicariously living through Casanova’s stories when you get stood up on a Friday night).

The above reasons for why history should be taught are all well and good, but they are abstract and vague, and theoretically can apply to nearly every era and epoch of history that could be taught.  Our current paradigm on education is that it is a travesty if individuals are given educations that are sub-par (hence the focus on standards, mostly to ensure that everyone hits a minimum bar) so things must be standardized to ensure that no child is left behind.

Image result for no child left behind

Where this leads into the blog-post is the concept that a history teacher must ensure that they are not failing their students by ensuring they reach a theoretical bar.  This means teachers must do conceptual triage on the events, people, and things that have happened over the extravagant course of humanity.  My own inquiry has seemed to show that nearly every person has a triage system in mind when asked the question, “What are the most important things in history?  Given that you only have a couple years, what things MUST you teach, and what things can you ignore?”

“What are the most important things in history?  Given that you only have a couple years, what things MUST you teach, and what things can you ignore?”

Answers vary for what thing is the most important to teach from cultures, to systems of oppression, to religions, to stories of singular nations or singular people, to technological development, ad nauseam for ever and ever.  Some people advocate a combination of things, “teach Rome, teach steam engines, teach World Wars, teach expansionism,” others advocate a combination of ignored things, “teach women’s roles in the politics, teach minority population’s impacts in wars, teach about divergent sexualities in ancient times,” while the K-12 standards essentially throw their hands in the air and say “if you can make it work, it works.” (check http://www.k12.wa.us/SocialStudies/Outlines/UnitOutlinesNinthTenthGrade.pdf if you want to see the rat’s nest that is 9th and 10th grade standards in the state of Washington).  To do a quick survey of links for most important events in history, I’ve included the list below with descriptions of the lists:

owlcation.com/humanities: Largely a list of European impacts, nothing further east than Saudi Arabia or further West than Washington DC

listovative.com: Same criticism as above, little outside Europe, little outside America

www.omgtoptens.com: Same as the first two links, almost identical in fact.

www.bbc.com: This one is more or less a scientific history; granted the Cambrian explosion was a dramatic turning point in Earth’s history, but this list is more easily placed in a biology or physics classroom than in a history one.

www2.esm.vt.edu: Probably the best of the links in this short set, but there are more things on this link than a teacher could reasonably be able to teach in a few years.  The question would become “Should breadth be taught in place of depth?”

Admittedly, it is a straw-man fallacy of sorts to simply drop a handful of lists from the google-machine to support a point, but outside a very in depth search of the web, most lists will be similar.  Surveys of Western impacts on the world, limited to the modern and post-biblical eras.  If we truly believe that the World Wars are important enough to be a standby for anyone to know, the question should be what it is about the wars that we want people to know.  If the Enlightenment is truly a golden standard of knowledge, teachers should have a unified answer for why the Enlightenment is so valuable to know about.

If we were truly teaching students things that are most impactful in history, consider for a moment why we do not teach more about the history of the Judaic people.  At the point of the Babylonian exile in the early 600s BCE, there were thought to be roughly 80,000 people from the population of Judah (some 20,000 were taken into slavery).  This relatively small population of individuals and their beliefs eventually grew into the Jewish people, as well as branching off into the Abrahamaic religions of Christianity and Islam.  The simple survival of that 100,000 people has dramatically impacted the world through the ripples of history.Image result for exiled jews

If we are talking about events that were most destructive to mankind, then we should be far and away talking about diseases like the Bubonic plague, and outside the realm of illnesses, rather than discussing World War II (roughly 3.7% of the world population was killed) we should be talking about Genghis Khan and Tamerlane (each killed roughly 5% of the global population).

If the focal point should be on events that were most dramatic in how they changed social and political boundaries, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon or Gandhi’s passive resistance of the British Empire are more dramatic examples of change than the Haitian revolution or the Napoleon’s coups.  Hannibal is forgotten in our curriculum, even though he waged a war that the world idolized for the next two thousand years.  The empire of Xerxes is only referenced as a foible overcome by the Spartans.  Marco Polo gets a week of study, as does Alexander, Galileo gets two at best.

Image result for alexander the great knotGold star for whoever can answer who this chap is and what he is doing to that rope.

The question we should be asking ourselves is whether or not there is actually a set of things in history every person should know in order to operate as a human being.  If we cannot as a society come to a solid conclusion that rectifies the historian’s dilemma, then we should be asking ourselves what it is that we truly want people to have when they finish a high school diploma.  If we want them to learn skills, then we should ask why they have any homework whatsoever that tests for anything but skills, if we want them to learn factoids, we should ask ourselves “why those particular facts?”  If we think the subject is valuable, the first step should be knowing what it is that we value in it.