Teaching History is Tough

A few days ago I had an in-depth discussion about why so many people seemed to hate history as a child.

I love history, I loved it as a child, throughout grade school, it was one of my majors in college, and I continue to study history on my own as an adult. So, why did I like it where so many others didn’t?

I think it might be because I learned it outside of the classroom.

History is incredibly tough to teach because it is a subject without limit. Take for example early Cold War history.  The Cold War lasted from 1945 – 1991. I spent countless hours in a number of different courses studying that 46 year war… but even within that short span of time,  the overwhelming majority of my study hours were on the Eisenhower and Kennedy years (roughly 11 years). Within that, my primary focus was on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted a whopping 13 days… I spent far more time studying the Crisis than it lasted.

Adlai Stevenson kicks ass on the floor of the UN during the Cuban Missile Crisis... my favorite moment in world history.
Adlai Stevenson kicks ass on the floor of the UN during the Cuban Missile Crisis... my favorite moment in world history.

I know Cold War history, really know the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, and I could talk for days about the Cuban Missile Crisis. My other area of focus was on early Constitutional history (another 50 years or so). I could talk your ear off about the genius of the Founding Fathers.

Basically, after studying history for four years and spending a ton of time reading on my own, I have mastery of the Cold War, early Constitutional history, the history of the guitar in the Western world, and the history of the comic book industry. If I were to teach history, those are the areas that I truly be able to speak about with authority (and two of them are mighty narrow niches).

However, all I would need to teach high school history is a teaching license. This is the case for all history teachers. The topics are so incredibly broad, the wealth of material on any given subject, so deep. No one can master it all. No one can be passionate about all of it. What happens are tremendous gaps in the classroom.

Math, science, English, languages all have rules, and well-defined curriculum. History is so insanely ill-defined… and that’s before you look at the differences in interpretation of events. As a general rule, I don’t think high school history even attempts to analyze the fact that historians don’t agree on a universal history. The past really isn’t clear.

The best path to enjoying history is to find a topic or era that you like, and read on your own. Everything has history, companies, industries, musical instruments and movie genres. The comic book industry’s history overlaps with the history of the organized crime, and the contraceptives industry, as well as Jewish-American and WWII history, in a beautiful web of intrigue and chance.

History isn’t just about the old white guys on our money (although I find most of them very interesting). When I get passionate about something I learn it’s history, music, videogames, the Constitution, or nuclear deterrence. I don’t think it’s possible to understand and fully appreciate anything in life without learning where it came from, and how it evolved over time.

History teachers have it tough. No one will find all of world history interesting (even the most devoted history student), and there is no way that each teacher can have a thorough understanding of all of the classroom material, sometimes they will have to phone it in.

~ syndicated by TheGeekWhisperer.com

4 thoughts on “Teaching History is Tough

  1. Teaching and studying History is tough indeed.
    Which only means you’re a serious searcher.
    Which means no avid researcher can’t escape it right? :-)

  2. Perhaps it’s what is being taught that makes history ‘boring’ as a subject…A commonly known phrase is that school history is all Henry and Hitler. And it’s true. Perhaps a more interesting breadth of study is therefore key.

    Also, it is the interpretations of history that are so fascinating, in my opinion this is what makes history so fascinating. If everyone had one interpretation of every event, it wouldn’t be a debate and the debate is the essence of really enjoying the study of history.

    It’s also the teacher’s passion: When a teacher has been teaching the same subject, the same lessons, the same worksheets for 10 years, his/her lessons lose their interest. Passion for a subject is something that a teacher CAN transfer to students, at least most students.

    Above all, it’s also the relevance of history that students who find history supposedly boring fail to see. A good history teacher should convey why this topic is important to the student’s life, their families, their home towns, their country. History needs to be made personal and emotive to really grip people. Take the First World War: Largely it isn’t an in depth analysis of the Schlieffen Plan that most students are interested in, it’s the letters home from soldiers, it’s the personal photographs.

    What do you make of these ideas?


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