Questions and tentative answers about teaching history that I hope to answer as the semester proceeds.
Question #1: What is historical proficiency and how is it measured?
Consideration that historical knowledge and historical thinking are the aims of survey courses, I recall Calder’s remark on his impossible final assignment, “impossible tasks call for the utmost one is capable of.” Students in most cases respond to meaningful tasks, even if they are challenging, so restructuring the way history is taught is a hopeful promise that could offer a more contemporary way to think about historical events, people who shaped them, and the results they produced for the generations following.
One of the ways I believe learning happens is by discovering. In my education, I was presented with the “traditional” ways of teaching of history both in high school and college courses. It was an unending list of disconnected dates, places, and names, presented in textbooks, rarely questioned but soon forgotten. I was not asked to do the impossible, to think critically and analyze historical documents, they were already given meaning and assigned a place in history. Often they lacked connection to the present. A few years after I graduated from high school and began preparing to study for the entry examinations in History and Literature for my double teaching major at a Hungarian university, I was notified to discard all that I had learned from my high school textbook after 1945. Our textbooks were being rewritten – more accurately this time. The year was 1991. I can’t help but be skeptical about other’s interpretation of history, whether it is presented in a textbook, during a lecture, or explored in a scholarly journal. Students might feel more comfortable taking the prepared historical thinking in an introductory course and shy away from questioning facts, motives, and implications. Others might feel overly empowered to impart their own views on the rest. It is easy to envision a chaotic and clashing or silent and timid class. This takes us to consider how we feel about history, how were we affected by history in our own experiences. So, can we truly measure the success of Calder’s signature pedagogy? Will it lead to a sort of critical knowledge historians and teachers hope to impart on students of history?
Question #2: How should teachers manipulate primary sources included in survey courses?
I have found an intriguing parallel between teaching literature and historical thinking. Wineburg, Lévesque, and Calder discuss stepping outside of the factual nature of history, which correlates with teaching literature by stepping outside the text and making connections to author’s biography, historical events, artistic, social, and cultural movements to gain a deeper understanding of the reading. It seems to me that the teaching of history is expending in that direction by examining primary sources the way they were not considered before. Context of history is more than how conflicts developed in a certain period of time, it is the personal and professional critical commentary surrounding them that allows us to see a more complete slice in time and ultimately question what we can learn. Thus, my second question is whether we can safely choose those primary sources to be included in the survey without inadvertently introducing an automatic bias. Students may conduct their own research and could supplement the sources being considered. In additions, drawing parallels in between other nation’s history and our own could inform students.
Question #3: Could cross-curricular strategy work in promoting historical thinking?
My own experiences of teaching literature, more specifically close reading and critical analysis, using methodologies similar to Calder’s six moves and asking questions that lead us to a discovery of moral self-knowledge and knowledge of life made me wonder about expanding the investigation of history into other disciplines. Just as the interpretations of literary pieces are informed by history and culture, correspondingly, historical events may be viewed, questioned, reexamined through the lens of fiction. Social, cultural, and political commentaries are frequent, if not a constant fuel for writers. Investigating history as what is included or left out of novels, what is prophesied, satirized, or written as propaganda could ignite students thinking of history and connect to the humanness of this discipline. In his article “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts”, Wineburg mentions Schindler’s List and the profound experience he had as the final credits rolled. Literature could provide another piece of the puzzle in the understanding of times before ours and the motivation of people we question. Writings of Rachel Carson, Mark Twain, and Arthur Miller come to mind. For instance, my juniors have just finished reading The Great Gatsby and in their final essay they were asked to discuss the following questions, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925, and here we are reading it so many years later. Why? What makes this book a “classic”? Use specific details from the novel, Fitzgerald’s life, and from the articles you have read to support your answer.” Although students noted Fitzgerald’s style of writing, the focus of relevance argued moral issues, class, race, and how the author’s own life experience during the Roaring 20’s presented a view, which is hard to capture in textbooks.