Thursday, December 27, 2012

Who Needs History? Everyone.

This article is in response to a New York Times editorial piece (link included in article below).  As a lover of history, I of course had an opinion that was too long for a facebook entry, so I chose to post my own editorial opinion here. 

A recent New York Times article  - ignorance-we-trust/  -  shared some opinions on the value of teaching history.  The governor of Florida, Rick Scott, voiced an opinion that history was less valuable and should be surcharged a higher tuition rate than those majoring in business-related degrees. (Should I assume he believes we history majors are wasting valuable college space and should be “fined” for doing so?)  

As a soon-to-be-history-teacher and one who has studied history for years just for the fun of it, I of course disagree with the governor.  As a politician, the governor should understand the value of history more than most as everything he does begins with a knowledge of history.  His success at his job requires knowing how and why bills are passed.  It requires a knowledge of social and anthropological history to understand what his constituents need and why they need it.  To use a well-known phrase, he needs to know where he’s been before he can know where he’s going.

Something as simple as watching television for entertainment requires a knowledge of history to understand some story lines and punch lines.  An episode of “I Love Lucy” finds Lucy asking Minnie Finch if she will participate in a survey.  Minnie responds suspiciously, “Say!  Your name wouldn’t be Kinsey, would it?”  Viewers have no idea why this is funny unless they know the history of the name “Kinsey” in relationship to “survey” in a setting of the 1950s.  Readers of this article don’t understand what I just wrote if they lack this same historical knowledge.

Popular cartoon shows enjoyed by children and adults alike often make historical references.  Watching “The Simpsons” has become a game at our house as we watch for references to obscure bits of historical knowledge used as a punch line.   “Family Guy” is another show that is funnier when you understand the historical reference behind some of the zingers.  My daughter says she learned a lot of history by watching “Family Guy”.  (I have yet to determine if that’s a good thing or a sad thing!)

Reference to “the perfect crime” team of Leopold and Loeb is found in shows such as “Mad Men”, “Law and Order” and “Criminal Intent”.  Part of the story line is lost if the viewer does not understand the history of who these two famous criminals were. 

Entertainment aside, people like the governor seem to forget that even those in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) require a knowledge of history. Students in those classes need to know what inventions and discoveries have already been made and how they were discovered before new theories and ideas can go forward.  
Hiroshima Bombing
More than that, these disciplines need to understand the social history of their fields.  What scientist or engineer can go forward without an understanding of the history of the effects, physical and social, of the Manhattan Project?  

Scientists who work in the cloning and genetic field should have a knowledge of the history of eugenics, how it was used (and abused) and the social impact of the theory and practice.  Personally, I believe any genetic engineer should be required to know, before they are ever accepted into their first class, how the Nazi’s used the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case of Bell v. Buck as precedent for the sterilization of persons considered “socially inadequate” to be an acceptable practice.  (Yes, it is true.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes actually said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!”)

The problem, as the article referenced above mentions, is not so much the teaching of history but the method of teaching history.  Is it more important that students know Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865?  Or do they benefit more from the understanding that Lincoln was shot just days after Lee’s surrender which ended the Civil War, which took place in the mid-1800s?  Would their critical thinking skills be enhanced as they contemplated the conflict between Booth thinking he would be the South’s hero and the actuality of how the South scorned his actions? I’d prefer my students understood the story behind those events rather than just memorize a date on which an event happened.

Hiram Revels

Is it more important that students know just that Hiram Revels was the first non-white elected to the U.S. Congress in 1870?  Or should they know the history of his election and how his citizenship eligibility was questioned since black men were not considered citizens, which was a political office requirement? And how important is it that they understand how this conflict was resolved? 

For those not familiar, it was not resolved by the argument that being black or white shouldn’t make a difference in the post-Civil War era.  It was resolved by showing that since Hiram Revels was not “pure” African blood, then the Dred Scott case did not apply to him.  It was resolved, ironically, by the fact that white plantation owners felt they had a right to have sex with their female slaves and sire more slaves. It was this slave-owner action, the action that whites felt was their God given right of superiority, that gave Revels the legal “loophole” to hold political office and be “superior” (in a sense) to non-elected whites.

Or should the history question simply be, “Who was the first non-white elected to Congress and in what year?”

Sadly, the idea that “history is boring” is often perpetrated by parents who were taught history in what I call “The Dry Dust Method” of learning just names, places and dates.  These parents repeat to their children how boring history is so the child walks into the classroom expecting to be bored.  With the textbooks that are written, their low expectation is met too many times.  I ask all parents …. please stop thwarting your child’s education by planting negative ideas in their head about learning.

I’ve met many teachers who are exceeding at the challenge of making history part of the joy of learning.  They are telling the story in an exciting and interesting way that keeps their students’ attention.  They have to work twice as hard, however, because they have so many barriers set up in front of them before the student even walks into their classroom.  The Florida governor is not helping their efforts.

History is not boring.  If it were boring, television shows such as CSI and Pawn Stars would not be popular.  Whole networks such as the History Channel and the Discovery Channel would not be on the air.  The difference is that these programs show how history is applicable and these programs tell the story. 

Have you seen the film, “America: The Story of Us”? Mesmorizing! Even this history major had not heard the amazing story of the Father of “Special Forces”, Daniel Morgan, until watching the Revolutionary War part of this film!

Movies that are encased in history would not be big hits, such as:  Apollo 13, The Help, The Great Escape,  Schindler’s List, Ghandi, The Virgin Queen, The Count of Monte Cristo, Bonnie and Clyde, The Right Stuff, All the President’s Men, the list goes on and on. These are not fictional movies … they are history stories (non-boring history stories!) that drew millions to the theater.

You should see me teach the story of William Harvey Carney.  And notice I said “SEE” me teach it, not “hear” me teach it!  Because the story of William Harvey Carney is too exciting to just be “told” in a name/date method.  It truly must be experienced.

And THAT, Mr. Governor, is the type of teaching you should be encouraging.


1 comment: