Friday, December 02, 2005


"The only history class they will ever take"

A few days ago I discovered a page at the History Matters site promising to reveal Secrets of Great History Teachers. It's a very interesting page of interviews with distinguished historian teachers, with a range of examples from both secondary and postgraduate schools. While browsing them I was struck by the following paragraph in an interview with Orville Vernon Burton, a professor of American history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign:
My first year at the University of Illinois when I was teaching the survey, I was called in by our most distinguished U.S. historian. I am sure he meant well, but he informed me that there were many problems with my teaching ... he thought my biggest problem was that I was confusing the students by discussing how different historians thought differently about issues. “This is the only history course that most of these students will ever take,” he told me, "and they need to know the facts." I disagreed. If this is the only history course students ever take, it was all the more important that they know that historians disagree over what the facts are as well as over interpretations. I still believe that.
"This is the only history course that most of these students will ever take." That platitude, or should I say that attitude, bugs me, even though I often repeat it to myself when struggling to make decisions about what to include on a syllabus or in a lecture. I think that many history teachers take for granted what Burton's colleague did: that we have one shot at reaching the students in our classes before they throw history on the dustbin forever. And maybe that's why we agonize about how much to cover in a course. It is because we believe, at some basic level, that this course is the only chance we have to teach students the history of the United States, or the history of Western Civilization, or the history of (gulp) the world.

Set aside for the moment the question of how statistically sound the assumption is. It seems like common sense, but I'm sure that at specific institutions and in specific survey courses, the generalization probably is not as iron-clad as it sounds. Implicit in the assumption of Burton's colleague is another presumption--that our undergraduate history students are just less interested in taking history classes than other classes--that is probably even harder to substantiate statistically. Some rough-and-ready figures in this Perspectives article suggest that national average enrollment in undergraduate history courses has been increasing in recent years, even if only marginally.

But even if it could be statistically proven, in any given course, that the majority of our students will never take another history class, I think it helps our teaching very little to know this. For one thing, it bespeaks a certain fatalistic pessimism, a world-weary attitude that students don't care about history and won't care to know more. If history teachers think that about their students, it's bound to come across to those students in their teaching. And if we convey to our students a pessimism about their interest in history, our Cassandra-like prophecies about the ahistorical wasteland of their futures will likely become self-fulfilling. Why should they take other history courses if they can sense our fear that they won't? Shouldn't our goal as teachers be to inspire students to take more history courses, rather than to assume from the beginning that they will not?

To be sure, many students will not take other history courses, despite our best efforts to encourage them to do so. Certain majors require undergraduates to run through so many rigorous paces that they won't have time in their schedules for other history classes, even if they want to take them. Even so, the fact that a student may take only one history class does not mean that they will never have another encounter with history. Indeed, if we cannot ensure that students will seek out other history courses, we can and should be conveying to students that knowledge of the past is important enough for them to seek out in whatever way they can. Suppose it is the only history class they will ever take: that does not mean the assigned reading has to be the only history book they ever pick up.

Charming idealism, some might say. Perhaps. But let's imagine the worst-case scenario: that the majority of our students, despite our enthusiasm and encouragement, will never take another history class, never enter a museum, never read another book or article about history, never watch a history documentary, never see a historical film or read a historical novel. (The scenario is ludicrous, if you put it that way. But so-called "realism" often turns out, on closer inspection, to be less realistic than idealism.) Even if that dismal scenario were to come true, it would not settle a single question about how to teach a history course. It would establish that those questions were incredibly important, that they deserve our serious thought and careful attention. But the fact that a history course may be the only exposure to history a student has entails nothing whatsoever about what that course should include or how it should be taught.

That's not what Burton's anonymous colleague concluded, of course. For him, the likelihood that his students would never take another history course made it imperative to pass along "facts" and downplay scholarly disagreement. But those pedagogical choices are not at all implicit in the bare fact that this is "the only history class they will ever take." And to be fair, Burton's counter-argument is no more valid than his colleague's: it is not "all the more important" that students learn about disagreements between historians if this is the only history class they will ever take. It is either more important that they learn about differing interpretations, or it is more important that they learn "facts." Whether this will be a student's only history course does not help a teacher decide on the relative importance of those two pedagogical strategies.

It is common for people to confuse the value of a particular decision with the values they will use to make that decision. Tourists tell themselves that this is the only time they will visit Rome, so they have to see the Coliseum. But in fact, nothing about this being their only time in Rome makes the value of seeing the Coliseum appreciably higher. The tourist's sense that his time in a city is limited sharpens the importance of making considered, rather than casual, decisions about what to see. But it doesn't actually help him make choices about what to see. He believes that his sense of urgency is directly informing his decisions about what to include in an itinerary, but that's what we might call a "logical illusion." To give another example, suppose I am visiting a restaurant that I know I will not visit again. That makes me study the menu with special care, but it doesn't at all help me decide what to order. (Least of all does it mean that it would be more rational for me to order everything on the menu rather than only one thing. That would probably lessen the pleasurableness of my one visit.)

The truth is that when I am deciding what to order at the restaurant, or what to see in Rome, or what to include on a syllabus or in a lecture, my awareness that the decision is momentous does not actually help me make a decision. Retrospectively, I may think that it does, by telling myself that I saw the Coliseum because it was the most important thing to see, or ordered the caviar because it was the chef's specialty. But really what I'm doing is trying to reassure myself that my decision about what was most important to see, or eat, or teach was the right one. In reality, I made those decisions based on some other logic that may not even be perceptible to me. I had some way of ordering the values of different possible choices, but nothing about the fact that I could make a limited number of choices actually helped me order them. (If you disagree, consider that every choice we make occurs within a context of limited possible choices, since we are temporal and mortal beings. Does a knowledge of your ultimate end really help you decide what to have for breakfast?)

By my lights, at least, the historian's platitude that "this is the only history class our students will ever take" is nothing but a pedagogical red herring. It settles nothing in debates over what to teach or how to teach it. Those debates have to be settled by appeal to some other standard of adjudication, especially since (to make an obvious point that really makes this whole post superfluous) in a debate like the one between Burton and his colleague, either side can appeal to the fact that he only gets one chance with his students. Neither interlocutor gains the upper hand by pointing out a bare fact, if indeed it is one. I could just as easily win an argument over what to teach my students by pointing out that semesters come to an end. Well, yes, but how does that fact speak at all to the question of what to do with a semester?

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

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