Sunday, May 13, 2007

History, backwards

Kevin Drum gives us some outside-the-box thinking - he suggests that kids would be more interested in learning history if we taught it to them backwards:

(C)urrent events are intrinsically interesting, and learning about them make you genuinely curious about why the world ended up the way it did. If the lessons are structured with curiosity about causes in mind, this will make you interested in the Cold War, which in turn makes you interested in World War II, which in turn makes you interested in the Great Depression, etc. It's a solution to the most obvious problem of teaching history: without any context, why should a 16-year-old care about dusty topics like the Missouri Compromise or the rise of the labor movement?

The strength of this approach is that kids are naturally more interested in what's going on at the moment than in what happened decades ago. The backwards approach might work on some subjects, such as working backwards from 9/11 and the Gulf War to provide a better understanding of US - Middle Eastern relations. Another problem with the way history is taught in many schools is that so much time is spent focused on the nation's founding and the Civil War that there's little room left to understand more recent events like the Vietnam War.

I'm skeptical, though, that this would be the best approach to providing an overview of American history. History is a narrative, and like most good stories, events build upon one another. The key to understanding is recognizing how one event leads to the next, an example being how the incomplete resolution of the slavery issue in the Constitution was a factor leading to the Civil War, or how the failure of government officials to heed economic warning signs in the 20's led to the Great Depression. Maybe I'm being too much of a traditionalist, but it still seems that the best way to build a house is to start with laying the foundation.

The real secret to learning history is with the teacher. A good history teacher is one that makes the story interesting - a good history teacher can make the Missouri Compromise a compelling part of the narrative. There are undoubtedly teachers who could also start with current events, work backwards, and make that interesting. The culprits who make history dull and boring to students are the ones who can't see the stories embedded in our nation's past and turn their classes into a dull repetition of dates, places, and names. Rote learning deadens interest in any subject, and is especially inexcusable in history class, with the great range of pivotal events and intriguing personalities that teachers can choose from to present the ever-fascinating and important story that is America.