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History Is Not Always Exciting. Deal With It

February 2, 2022

The goal of “making history exciting” is a fool’s errand for professionals.

Can it happen? Sure. Is it possible? No doubt. Is it a sustainable, or reasonable, way to think about teaching and learning? Absolutely not.

The notion of anything being “exciting” is a subjective, time-and-place kind of thing. It depends on circumstances out of one’s control and the mood of the receiver. You can’t plan for excitement any more than you can plan for sex. Most often it’s counter-productive to aim for it. It’s more about luck or fortune than skill.

The best aim in the classroom, in a big picture sense, is to show how the study and reading of history is worth everyone’s time and energy. Inculcating some kind of lasting, sober appreciation for the complexities and nuance of history is the more sustainable endeavor. It’s an achievable goal—though it takes sustained exposure to, and guidance through, the works of history.

If history educators can show learners that there is a respectable payoff in studying various subfields and topics, then that instructor has done their job. Respect for the topic, the field, and its practitioners will do more in the long term for society and the profession.

Turning history into a field of entertainment, however, diminishes both the topic and the work of entertainers. A great many attempts at entertainment by actors fail or are mediocre at best. And a great many do not generate “excitement.” Why would any historian think they could better, given their lack of training in those arts?

My advocating for ignoring the notion of “excitement” in the teaching of history doesn’t mean I’m saying that history must necessarily be “boring.” Helping foster respect for complexity, nuance, context, change over time, causation, history’s characters, contingency, argument, narrative, and storytelling need not be an endeavor that lacks stimulation. One makes those concepts come alive in the study of history’s events. That’s where the sustainable intellectual money is. – TL

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