Rethinking the narrative: a return?

Teaching history is at a bit of a crossroads. High school history, particularly with its emphasis on objective forms of testing and standardization, has diluted history and gives the sense that there should be some sort of objective correct answer. Objective testing and a renewed sense of practical applicability to every aspect of education has also led to an increase in apathy about history learning. High school history classes are, for the most part, boring.1 In those classes there is an overemphasis on names and dates to the extent that many incoming freshmen believe that names of dead people and past dates are what compose history. One of the the uphill battles fought in college history classes is to draw connections and teach them that history has more to do with the connections, causation, and movements than about the name and the dates.

As the fashionability of studying old white men in positions of power has waned, history classes seem to increasingly deal with cultural movements (sometimes without concrete dates), social conditions, and ideas. If fed to a receptive audience, this type of class is more engaging than another dry history class where students are forced to memorize an interminable list of dates and names. At the same time, because this sort of class requires students to actively engage the material (ultimately the goal of history, in my opinion), it does run the risk of falling on deaf ears.

An even greater issue, though, is that for the marginally interested student–one willing to show up to lecture and to read primary documents, but not the textbook2–this sort of course runs the risk of confusion. One of the primary reasons, it seems, that professors assign textbooks is to relieve themselves of needing to provide a thorough, detailed narrative in lecture. Yet, to my as-of-yet limited experience, unless the students are demonstrably tested on the material from the textbook on a regular basis, they don’t read it. Textbooks are expensive, dense, and boring. As a TA and tutor I can only bring myself to look at them as a last resort. But if the instructor expects that the student is reading it on a regular basis to fill in the gaps of the lecture and to provide some sort of narrative then the students need to do the reading before class just in order to follow along.3

The immediate impetus for this discussion is that I gave a quiz today in which I was told that, in addition to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might have taken place in the presidencies of Wilson, Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Nixon (and one Kennedy/Nixon). Kennedy and Nixon were at least in the right ballpark and Roosevelt had instituted an earlier liberal domestic agenda plan, but Wilson was president a half century earlier. Nor was this the only question that resulted in such a staggering uncertainty about chronology or dates. These results are just a small sample size and are likely as much due to people not showing up for class as anything, but the lack of concrete chronology cannot be helping.

One of my committee members mentioned to me in passing that if you are not assigning a book with a good narrative for the time period of your class, you need to make sure that you are providing one for the students. I am wondering if we shouldn’t go even a step further and return to providing a concrete narrative, making sure to draw out the chronology so that the students can see what order events took place in and how they overlapped–to go along with a healthy helping of geography. Ideas, cultural movements, and social issues are all well and good, but if the students confuse the chronology, confuse the causation, and confuse where they took place, none of that matters. As both a student and a discussion leader I prefer seminar style classes, but right now it seems that we need a better way to lay down a chronological foundation if we ever hope to actually engage ideas.

1 I say this recalling that some of my favorite high school teachers were history teachers. Then again, I am now a graduate student working towards a Ph.D. in history.
2 Who could blame this student? I hate textbooks, though I will admit that they are sometimes useful.
3 Nor are all textbooks are created equal.

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