• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Teaching Sustainability in 21st Century America - #4

Those who never learn history's lessons can't entirely be blamed . . .

August 1, 2013

Sustainability isn't just about the ecosystem.  It's true that if (as) we destroy the ecosystem we'll make it nearly impossible for society-as-we-know-it to survive.  On the other hand, we can pretty much destroy society's chances even without mangling the climate, or the water supply, or biodiversity.  We can destroy society's chance for survival by raising a generation which is even more assertively ignorant of history than the ones which preceded it.  (I'm referring to the Gen X'ers who can't identify which century the American Civil War was fought in, and the Gen Y'ers who're similarly unable to place World War II.  In each case, the profoundly ahistorical are, perhaps, a minority of their respective cohorts.  But it's too large a minority.  Way too large.)

Now, I'm not one who believes that the solution to ignorance is a longer school day or a longer school year, whether we're talking higher ed or K-12.  Each of those proposals falls into the general category of "if it's not working, do more of it", and that's not a category I generally sympathize with.  More often, the reason it's not working is that we're not doing it right, and the teaching of history in US schools -- certainly in K-12 schools and often also in post-secondary education -- too often treats history as a discrete subject.  If we as a society are to learn from history, we need to see it as an integrative matrix across which most other subjects are displayed.  We need to stop focusing on wars, the leaders of wars, the leaders of government, and the leaders of industry.  We need to start focusing on the general populace.  Students -- and I aspire to mean all students -- need to be exposed to history as a truly social study, and not just 'one damn thing after another'.

It's not that hard to do, at least pedagogically speaking.  There's quite a treasury of social and socially-focused works of history, from Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States to George Packer's recent work The Unwinding.  And we're not limited to the history of US society; as a high school student, I was introduced to the work of G.M. Trevelyan; it changed my perspective on what history was all about -- suddenly, it was relevant.  When what we call 'history' focuses on the lives of everyday people, it becomes interesting to students who come from everyday families.  It's no longer about learning names and dates and places and events, even if the instructor is more able than most at weaving all those into some sort of narrative.  All of a sudden, history becomes a story of how real people (not just the extraordinary) lived, and struggled, and survived, and sometimes thrived.  Just learning that, from time to time, large portions of the mass of everyday people can actually thrive puts a whole new light on things.  Lots of things.

Teaching history in a way that everyday students find interesting can help those students to take a long-term perspective on a wide range of issues.  And teaching history as a truly social study can help students form a view of society as more than just the aggregation of a bunch of atomistic individuals.  Who knows -- maybe teaching social history can even help students to grasp the concept that things didn't have to turn out the way they are, that the world we live in isn't the only possible world, that changing society -- making history -- might even lead to improvement.  For every day folks.  For society.  And, incidentally, for things like the biosphere.

(P.S.  The teaching of history needn't -- probably shouldn't --be limited to classes with "HST" course identifiers.  The subject matter of disciplines from art and music to math and engineering evolved over time and -- in most cases --at least partially as a result of societal circumstances of one sort or another.  Old (but we're discussing history, so "old" is appropriate) PBS series like James Burkes's Connections and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (both of them with companion volumes) sketch out a framework on which material from a wide range of disciplines can easily be hung without resorting to topics like "history of [insert discipline here] thought", best reserved for grad-level courses.)


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