Why History Class Must Die!

Currently, the Peanuts comic strip by the late Charles Shulz stands out as a source of great wisdom and insight in our culture. I say this with partial sarcasm, only partial.

One particular strip showed Sally in Sunday School class, her teacher before her. He began, “Today we are going to discuss Church history. What do you know about Church history, Sally?”

She thought. Finally, she spoke up, “Well, I know our pastor is about 50…” Tragic insight. Tragic, accurate insight from Shulz.

American culture, Christians included, suffers from an odd sort of historical amnesia. Ours is a forgetful people. Of course, we do not realize we are forgetful because we have forgotten all we should have remembered. To make the memory lapse more bearable and seem less significant, we redefine history to make it a bit more cut and dry, stodgy, sanitized. Cue the modern history class.

Students around the country open textbooks written by men and women determined to let us know all that has happened in the history of the universe…in 1000 pages or less. Along the way, they happily interpret events to clue us into their “real meaning” and leave out details and events deemed forgettable. At the end of the process, we are handed a text free of the nagging baggage of primary sources, eyewitness accounts, original documentation, and literature of the period. Oh, what a burden lifted! Now we have a history we can live with, a history that can be taught in a semester! But, now we have a history that is faceless, revisionist, and inhuman.

Events of the past happened to real people – men, women, and children who endured or enjoyed it all in real time and real places. The modern “textbook” approach to teaching history removes those real people from the process. When primary sources, documents, and stories are removed, we are left treating history as fantasy. History courses must be taught using the literature of the period. We must do them the honor of hearing them out, considering their words, and evaluating the events of the past through those who lived it.

2 Responses

  1. I think I’ve found my soul mate! I have been saying the same thing for years! People think I’m crazy when I say I want to use literature written in a period to study it. They think the label “historical fiction” is enough and so will read “Across Five Aprils” written in 1964 instead of “CO. Aytch” which was written in 1882. Or better yet, diaries of soldiers fighting the war. The Library of Congress website does have a wonderful collection of actual images and text from various time periods. They have hundreds of slave narratives from the WPA’s files. Textbooks are a lovely quick look at the past. But you’ll never understand where we’ve come from if we don’t here from the people who lived it.

  2. Students must interact with history. I try to create a classroom environment where history is debatable and dynamic (use of ‘web 2.0′ tools, source materials from the library of congress, etc). For example, I made a post a few days ago that talks about integrating lessons about history into students’ understanding of profanity and derogatory language (http://educatorblog.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/when-soap-isnt-an-option/).

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