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Why I Teach History

January 22, 2008

Some days I know exactly what I want to post. I’ve read the paper (usually the Chicago Tribune), another worthy periodical, or a book, and—to paraphrase Jake and Elwood Blues—I’m on a mission from God. I want to talk with someone about what I’ve read. Come hell or high water, the post is going up.

Other days I flounder like the fish that’s been thrown on the bank by the industrious angler. I flip, flop, and breath heavy in labor. And when the post is up, I feel totally drained.

Today life as an H&E author has been made easy, courtesy of Tenured Radical. I suppose “easy” is one way to put it. She’s tagged me for a meme that began with two questions: Why do you teach? and Why does it matter? The meme started here.

As Ms. Radical did with her reflections, I’ll combine both questions into one list containing five or more points of concern. Here goes:

1. Teaching history is an exercise in empathy for all involved. It is my contention that studying and teaching history is a safe place to try and put yourself in the shoes of others. Counterintuitively, teaching history gives me an opportunity to point out how much we do not know. Much of the historical record is based on what, in today’s hyper-documented world, we would call flimsy evidence. It is precisely this lack of knowledge, about the past as well as today, that should excite empathy in us for others. Even when documentation exists, often the actors did not, or do not, know how to express themselves. So in studying and teaching history, our job is to realistically imagine what happened to others based on evidence. It’s the last part that separates historical empathy and emotional empathy.

2. Teaching history encourages me and others to consider different viewpoints. While empathizing is important, teaching and studying history also forces us to consider how the story might have been told from another perspective. Even if we maximize our historical empathy with the actors in past events, we still must try and consider different narratives—both from past actors and subsequent historians. And I’m using the term “historian” broadly here. Those telling the story about the past might be either immediately removed, say from one day to a few years, or chronologically quite distant—ten or hundreds of years from the events concerned. In weighing different viewpoints, as a teacher I must able to look around a subject. Then the job is to judge, to pick, which seems the best story. And pick we must, because one story is normally all most want, or have the time, to hear. You have to make it a good one.

3. Teaching history makes me, and hopefully others, think about evidence. This is a stronger, more pointed statement of something in point #1 above. We have to consider not only whether documentation exists, but the kind of each piece of evidence. Maybe we’re fortunate enough to access many types of evidence. But how do we compare pictures, letters, material culture, books, films, or archaeological fragments? Who created the evidence? What were their motivations? What’s missing? Then there is the fun part: How do we piece it together as a story? How does that story differ when it’s put on paper or presented as a moving picture documentary? How does the evidence chosen affect the story?

4. Teaching history allows me to explore any number of aspects of the human condition. Even though I had to specialize to earn a doctorate, I love the interdisciplinary possibilities of history. It’s exciting that one can think about philosophy, popular culture, economics, chemistry, emotions, social organizations, politics, and even the military when considering the historical record. This is both the strength and weakness, for instance, of the traditional history survey. In a post-Civil War U.S. course one gets to think about colonialism, farm implements, labor strife, literary movements, noteworthy women and men, education, global war, nuclear weapons, environmental pollution, national parks, drug use, free speech, space exploration, entertainment,morality, and religion. Of course you’re doing it shallowly in a survey, hence the criticism. But history affords the teacher, student, and reader in general the chance to try and make sense of it all.

5. Teaching history challenges me to continually communicate all of the above to an ever changing crop of unwilling—and sometimes willing—listeners. Each term of students brings new questions to the table. Even when their questions seem similar, the dynamics of one class bring about different emphases to their answers. As someone who has challenged himself with special, detailed topics, teaching helps keep me in touch with the first level of questions people ask about the past. It also challenges me to reach the unwilling. How can I excite their interest for sixteen weeks? Can I do it? This is both fun and challenging. With that…

6. History is fun. Even though Tenured Radical said this, I want to explain how it’s fun for me.

I came to history late, so I have something of the convert’s zeal. In middle school and high school, I learned history as a read-remember-and-regurgitate subject. I found ways to memorize people, places, and events and get As in nearly all of my classes, but was never inspired to study the subject further. I never picked up a history book for fun until college.

In high school the subject was boring for me, in part, because it was taught either as an adjunct to something bigger (meaning inherent in social studies, political science or literature classes) or by a lousy teacher—usually a coach who valued a sport more than the subject. I did have one memorable high school history teacher, Mr. Mitch Fiegel (I hope I spelled that right). He had a passion for American Indian history, learned by him, I think, at Pittsburgh State University. I remember him for being enthusiastic about the subject in a way that excited a hobbyist interest in me. He at least made history fun in a shallow way. But he was a passionate cross country coach, so his energies were split. And I was just an ignorant teenager who happened to be a good test taker.

I didn’t find history “fun” again until I took a course on U.S. environmental history from Professor Susan Flader at the University of Missouri. With apologies to her, however, my interest in her course was more utilitarian than fun or intellectually challenging. Her course, taken by me in the very early 1990s, fed my fledgling interest in the environmental field. I enjoyed the in-class debates, therefore, that covered the present rather than historical subjects.

Despite this baggage, history become fun for me between college and graduate school. It happened in two ways. First, in the process or reading the great books, I began to think about intellectual and cultural history. I began to see history’s complexity. I also began to sense the varying approaches to history—the different philosophies of history. This added an exciting, until then unknown dimension to my thinking about the subject. It made history both fun and intellectually challenging for me.

Second, my job with the State of Missouri’s Hazardous Waste Program required me to construct property histories. I had to find, in history, where pollutants entered the land’s story. This required archival exploration and chemical testing. Both helped me see how hard it is to construct an historical narrative—and how narratives are contested. This added to my sense of history’s complexity, and my growing fascination with the challenge inherent in the subject.

As I noted above, all this happened between college and graduate school. It’s what I learned about the study of history in that time that I try to communicate to my students. It seems to me that when one learns that history is about weaving stories and evidence, and not merely about memorizing names and dates, as well as filling one’s transcript with “As,” then history becomes fun. If you can embrace history’s complexity, as well as its paradoxical subjectivity and truthfulness, then it becomes an endeavor worthy of a lifetime of exploration. – TL

Update: I’m tagging my blog partner, Christopher Miller; Toby Higbie at Bughouse Square; David Parker at Another History Blog; Marc at Spinning Clio; Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory; and Paul Harvey at Religion in American History.

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5 Comments
  1. Your post has encouraged me to give some thought as to why I study history. It isn't my profession, no teacher requires me to read the books that I read and in all likelyhood it is simply something that I enjoy doing. But, I suspect it goes deeper than “history is fun,” and your piece has encouraged me to examine what it is that attracts me. You have many students, Tim. Some never set foot in your classroom.

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  2. Nice post, Tim– and thanks for the honor of being named one of the next tagees. I'll see if I can get something up by the end of the week.
    David

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  3. Sharon: Thanks for the compliment! To me, the topics of “Why I teach history” and “Why I love/study history” are very much interchangeable: all with ~any~ interest in history should think about one or the other.

    David: I look forward to your post!

    For all, Chris Goff, at the Campus Voices subsection of Free Exchange on Campus, is monitoring all bloggers—from any discipline—who take up his challenge to answer the “why I teach ____” topic. – TL

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  4. Thanks for your thoughts Tim and for passing the buck onto me. I will try to get something up in the not too distant future.

    Kevin at Civil War Memory

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