By Chris Guthrie, Rubicon International
As a history teacher, I have encountered a number of folks who say something like, “I am not a history person,” or “Oh, I hated history when I was in school,” when they learn this. Almost always it’s not a problem with history itself, but instead with the way they interacted with it in school.
The problem appears to be that at some point many students begin to equate history with the memorization of dates, names, and the uninspired titles for major events…essentially, they come away remembering only the chapter titles from their old history text books—a bundle of trivial facts.
As history teachers, then, we are left with both the mammoth responsibilities of a classroom and with combating the misconceptions about history our students might have picked up along the way. I recall three misunderstandings that came up again and again:
1. “History is the same as ‘the past.'”
It can be difficult to break this misconception, but a way to start is to ask your students to take a moment to think about everything that is happening around them; their internal thoughts and external choices, and their immediate surroundings. Now ask them to imagine the same for all the people currently alive; then the exchanges of all those people—every economic and social transaction—all the complex interactions and reactions occurring at that single second. Then ask them how future historians will write the history of this very moment: what will they choose to focus on? Ignore? How will they know and interpret this moment? What very real and important things might they miss?
Once a student understands that history and “the past” are different and that the past is so enormous and unknowable and historians piece together fragments of evidence to interpret (but not recreate) the past, then the foundation is already there for a much more fascinating exploration. “The past” has already happened, but how we view and learn from that past is very much alive—that’s “history.”
2. “History is just the memorization of facts.”
Many people become discouraged by history because they have trouble with dates, sequences of events, or other seemingly-outdated tidbits of information. After all, can a complex understanding of Henry VII’s break with the Catholic Church be conveyed through a multiple-choice question? Of course not, but if that’s our definition of passing the test, then we unintentionally perpetuate the idea to students that history is a series of meaningless, disconnected facts.
“Facts” are the simplest framework, the skeleton onto which a much more robust, fascinating, and debatable body is built. A better term to use with students might be “evidence,” as even historical “facts” can, and have, been found to be incorrect. Historians take this “evidence,” the scattered remains of a past we can never fully recreate, to understand and explain the change that brought us from one period to another. Students learn that every time a historian chooses to include specific pieces of evidence, they are also choosing which evidence not to include.
3. “There is only one history, and you either get it right or you get it wrong.”
The problem of a “single” history stems from a reluctance to teach historiography—the study of the study of history. I’ve heard some teachers ask whether this is too complex for their level of learners, whether they shouldn’t leave it to college professors. I would argue that it is never too early to engage your students with this topic. While a 5th grade student need not be able to produce an annotated bibliography of the entire canon of Latin American Independence histories, they can still be introduced to the idea that those studying history (and writing the books they read) are engaged in an imperfect dialogue with each other.
Instead of implying that there is a black-and-white response, let’s invite students into the messy debate that is history; let’s argue, interpret, research, and adjust. When we combat this final misconception of history, this is where the history teacher becomes a hero to our students, where history is elevated to “favorite class” status. Besides, this is probably where most of us found our passion for history in the first place.
Want to dive deeper with your students? Help them understand the importance of choosing historical evidence and the ways it will impact the particular “history” that is remembered:
Discuss: The selectiveness on the part of historians may be misinterpreted by students as harmless decisions of convenience, but we have also seen much more deliberate and destructive choices.
Investigate: Take, for example, the major writings on the History of American Slavery published between the Reconstruction Period (1860’s-70’s) up through the 1970’s. Of all the histories written (many of them by Southern apologists trying to discount Northern claims of the cruelty of slavery: see U.B Phillips and “American Negro Slavery” (1918) ), none used the evidence left by first-hand accounts, or testimonials, of those who were actually enslaved. When John Blassingame published “The Slave Community” in 1972 as one of the first academic studies of American slavery to use slave testimonies as evidence, the historical discourse around this subject was radically and irrevocably changed.
Imagine: A historian is looking to write a history of your school during the years they attended. This historian uses certain evidence: report cards, blogs and social media from teachers, disciplinary files, interviews with former teachers and administrators, and economic data on school expenses. The historian chooses to ignore as evidence any articles students wrote in the school newspaper, journals and essays written by students, recordings of student performances, and neglects to contact any former students for interviews.
Record: Ask students to journal and share their thoughts on the following questions: How would this “historical account” make the students feel? How will this person’s “history” compare to the experience of the students? How might the history be different if the student voice was included?
Philips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1918.
Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
It’s important that we bring out students to this crucial point: history is not an objective science, and no historian should ever claim to have a monopoly on truth. All of us have biases and are informed by our contemporary environments, our beliefs, and our own agendas. We can inspire our students to lay bare their perspectives and biases to continue moving past a narrow, single-voiced “history” to a broader, more inclusive, more comprehensive conversation about the past.
By teaching history with all its complexities, we help students participate in a vibrant and living discussion about where we have been, why we are where we are, and where we might one day go. We teach them that to even begin to understand the significance of any current event (such as the Indigenous Rights Movements, the dispute over islands in the South China Sea, and Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem), they must also interrogate their own historical understanding of the events, ideas, and actions which brought us here.
How are you teaching history? Have a great Atlas unit that showcases your history class curriculum? We’d love to have you join the conversation; send your unit our way at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Banner, James M. Jr. (ed.). A Century of American Historiography. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2009.
Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Jenkins, Keith. Rethinking History. London: Routledge Classics, 2003.
Lerner, Gerda. Why History Matters: Life and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lerner, Gerda. The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
Morgan, Jennifer L., Jennifer Brier, & Jim Downs (eds.). Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.