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History Reimagined

The challenges of teaching history in contentious times.

July 21, 2021
 
 

Ross Douthat, a very idiosyncratic kind of conservative -- the Catholic intellectual traditionalist, a type more common in Britain than the United States -- published a much-commented-upon column on, of all things, the French and Indian War.

A Hollywood favorite -- thanks to Last of the Mohicans -- this conflict, one small part of the much more sweeping Seven Years' War, did play, as Douthat suggests, a key role in European geopolitics, the evolution of European empires and the forging of a distinctive American identity.

Douthat's column is especially interested in how the conflict might be taught in K-12 schools. He makes a strong case that the war offers an outstanding opportunity for teachers to bring history to life. For one thing, the conflict provides a picture-perfect opportunity for students to wrestle with the idea of contingency. After all, the war erupted partly out of accident. An incident at the conflict's onset might have ended George Washington's career or even his life. And the outcome was an extremely close call.

The struggle also raises a gripping counterfactual question: What if the French and their Indian allies had prevailed?

Two other issues raised by the column elicited a cascade of reader comments: the agency of Indigenous peoples and religion's influence on interethnic relations. The conflict undercuts the view that displacement of Indigenous peoples was inevitable and raises key issues involving alliances (with Europeans and among Indian nations) and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of various forms of resistance. And it also raises the question of whether Indigenous-colonizer relations were truly different under Catholicism.

I know firsthand that many K-12 history and social studies teachers are trying scrupulously to avoid controversy by emphasizing inquiry and the analysis of primary sources. But as Douthat’s column suggests, even a traditional mainstay, taught in light of recent scholarship, can result in a more inclusive history and provide students with opportunities to wrestle with big questions.

This isn’t patriotic history nor its inverse. It’s what we mean when we say that history is philosophy teaching by example (a quote usually attributed to Thucydides).

What is history? “Bunk” is what Henry Ford thought. A “pack of lies the living play on the dead,” Voltaire believed. A register of humanity’s “crimes, follies and misfortunes,” in Gibbons's words. Or, as Arnold J. Toynbee concisely if coldheartedly put it, “one damned thing after another.”

In my view, history is at once a subject -- the totality of everything that occurred before us -- and a distinctive way of thinking.

Just as psychology, sociology and statistics represent distinctive ways to understand the world, so, too, does history. Much as psychologists scientifically study consciousness, emotions, memory, learning, reasoning and mental health, sociologists analyze social roles, social interactions, social structures and mechanisms of social control, and statisticians transform data into insights, historians have their own analytical approach, one that rests on a recognition that everything -- every object, practice, institution and cultural belief -- has a history.

History lays bare certain essential truths: that nothing is static but must be understood diachronically, longitudinally and dynamically. It also recognizes that past events and decisions carry lasting consequences, constrict future options and shape present-day identities, and that long-term developments and processes, to which people are often blind, powerfully impact our lives.

At the college level, I have seven specific learning objectives in my survey classes:

  1. A student should demonstrate mastery of essential facts, chronology and periodization.
  2. A student should demonstrate familiarity with significant historical controversies and conflicting interpretations.
  3. A student should be able to explain how historians reconstruct significant facts about the past.
  4. A student should be able to formulate meaningful and researchable historical questions and construct concise, sophisticated, compelling theses and arguments.
  5. A student should exhibit the methodological skills characteristic of history as a discipline.
  6. A student should be able to demonstrate historical thinking.
  7. A student should be able to analyze the connections between past and present in a nuanced, balanced manner.

But, of course, I also hope my students acquire something more: a genuine passion for the past. We inhabit a society that, for the most part, could care less about history, that regards the past as boring and irrelevant.

I not only want my students to understand that today’s most pressing problems and profound inequities are rooted in the past, I want them to view history as a source of wisdom: about human nature; leadership; the dynamics of social, cultural and political change; and the ambiguities of progress.

The great historian of Communism and the Soviet Union Ronald G. Suny has identified seven C’s that underlie the history that I hope my students will come to appreciate.

Context

That a nuanced understanding of people in the past requires us to understand the circumstances of their time and place. Contextualization requires us to do something that many find repellant: to empathize with those we despise and try to see the world through their eyes.

Conflict

That history consists in large measure of struggles over values and interests. The belief that history will come to an end -- that societies will somehow reach a consensus over liberal democracy, liberal capitalism and liberal internationalism -- is a dangerous illusion, since people will always disagree over what to believe, value and aspire toward.

Contingency

A recognition that, at every point in history, the future is indeterminate and hinges on unforeseen events and circumstances and upon decisions and choices that can’t be predicted with certainty.

Conjuncture

The ways that events, circumstances and ongoing processes combine to produce a crisis or pivot point.

Contradiction

A term that can be used in a liberal sense to refer to inconsistencies in goals and realities (as in the prevalence of slavery and racial inequality in a society nominally committed to freedom) or, in a Marxist sense, to refer to opposing forces with conflicting objectives (as, for example, the contradictory goals and interests of the working class and the middle class).

Complexity

An appreciation of the intricate, multifaceted and overdetermined causes or consequences of an event or a decision, and acknowledgment that oversimplified or reductionist explanations are grossly mistaken.

Confusion

An understanding that historical events take place and choices are invariably made in a fog of uncertainty and unpredictability and are subject to the influence of emotions and other nonrational considerations.

The uses of history are many. History is often a source of popular entertainment, an instrument of propaganda and a tool for instilling nationalism. It frequently fuels a sense of grievance and victimization but also self-righteousness and smugness.

In recent years, interest in the past has often assumed a highly personal form, evident in the booming interest in genealogy and family history and in collecting antiques or items associated with the childhood or teenage years. Frequently, the appeal of history lies in nostalgia, hero worship and longings for a fantasy world that never was.

In our own time, American history has become a weapon in the culture wars, a highly polarized partisan battleground and an arena where contemporary conflicts over race, violence and public policy play out.

But I hope we will also use history for yet another purpose: to understand, as Marx and Weber did, and as their historical sociologist successors like Orlando Patterson, Theda Skocpol and Charles Tilly (along with such historians as Sven Beckert, David Brion Davis, George Fredrickson and Peter Kolchin), have done, the emergence, development and consequences of modern capitalism, and the origins and evolution of the modern world system and the modern nation state.

Sweeping comparative histories encourage us to move beyond blinkered provinciality and understand how national expansion, state-building, colonialism, global integration and decolonization played out in diverse contexts. Such studies also remind us that topics like industrialization, the incorporation of frontier regions into expanding nation-states and the shift from slavery to a caste system of race relations and to various forms of unfree labor took place across national boundaries.

I’d be the last to dismiss a preoccupation with the past for its own sake as antiquarianism. As custodians of the past, historians have a professional responsibility to recover the particularities of the past to the best of our ability. Also, such acts of historical recovery are essential to any broader understanding of our collective history.

But history can and should be something more: whether we’re studying the history of higher education, educational technology or teaching practices, history can expose the intricate interplay of structure, ideology, individual agency and the pivotal historical processes that created today’s world. It can also encourage us to ask the big philosophical questions about determinism, the role of individuals in history and whether history is moving, however circuitously, in a particular direction.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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