Monday, August 16, 2010

How [should?] we teach history

This blog post on Abd el-Kader came to me secondhand via my RSS reader today. It's pretty fascinating in and of itself, but it's also really long, so don't start on it unless you've got a good chunk of free time ahead of you.

The thing that depressed me about the post is that I have basically zero context for any of it. I never really took an interest in history, not enough to go beyond what they taught us in high school, so for me north Africa and the Middle East are basically blank areas of the map for large swaths of history. In Rumsfeld's terminology, it was an "unknown unknown" until about an hour ago - something I didn't even realize I didn't know. For somebody accustomed to being a know-it-all, this comes as kind of a shock.

The trouble with "all the stuff we didn't learn about in history class" is that there wouldn't be enough time to cover it all if we spent our entire lives studying history. We only spend a limited amount of time in school, and that's a good thing! It just means that we need to find ways to present more varied information in the time we do have. Standardized curricula have their advantages, but the biggest downside in my opinion is that anything which doesn't make the cut remains completely unknown to several consecutive crops of students.

Do I have a solution? Nope, not a chance. I just think it'd be neat if we'd had more structured opportunities for everybody to go out and learn about something different. We can't (and shouldn't have to) increase the amount of time each child spends learning about history, so if we don't want to end up in a situation where everybody knows about the same subset of history, we need to find some way to diversify the knowledge base that we're building in history classes.

After all, if everybody learns the same parts of history, then nobody has anything interesting to say to anyone else about history, right?


Kiriska said...

The Internet poses at least a half-assed solution: get kids interested to some minimal degree. Let them do projects on whatever interests them. Encourage diversity.

Æther said...

I noticed this issue about the time we took world history in high school. Still, I'm not terribly interested in all the history of every region. What's more meaningful is the modern cultures that spring from them, and that's what really should be our concern. If we're not able to interact with other cultures we're far more doomed to repeat our past mistakes as compared to just knowing what happened, which is the main supposed value of knowing our past.