Teaching the Past

My teaching experience has been, to say the least, varied.   My specific assignments for full time courses over the years since starting in 1990 have included:  Bible, Life Science, Earth Science, Biology, Experimental Science, Ancient Literature, Ancient History, Medieval Humanities, US History, Modern Literature, History of Philosophy, Logic, Rhetoric, Composition, American Movies, and even P.E.  I think I can say I have enjoyed them all in their own way.  But my thoughts today are specifically about my forays into history.

The modern view of teaching history in my experience is best explicated with the term: “debunking.”  If I understand the concept rightly it goes something like this:  “We know way more than anyone in the past.  We live better than those in the past.  So studying the past mainly is for the purpose of not repeating any of their many mistakes and for propping up our current pride in being who we are instead of being who “they” were.  In fact, if there anything to be learned from the past, it would be by looking at the victims of the past and seeking to empathize with them.”

At first blush this will seem a straw man perhaps.  But I am starting to rack up quite a few history texts on my “books I have read” list and I am becoming more confirmed in this impression, not less.  At the moment, it is cool to find fault with the past.  But if I have this concept down correctly, it begs some questions.

The modern mind is full of problems when it comes to studying the past.  The progressive problem is one of its largest obstacles.  If we really have evolved and improved and become something “other” than what we were, then the debunking is about all that is left the student of history.  I am not going to turn this into a debunking of progressivism, but that view can be defeated.

Another clear problem is the issue of relativity.  We are convinced today that all “facts” are relative to their context.  This allows us to believe that while a certain decision reached in, let’s say, 1787, might have been “right” at that moment, it no longer fits the idea of being “right” once the context has changed.  While I can’t figure out how much must change to nullify the rightness of a decision (is it a day, a week, a year, a century?), the notion that all things change over time, and especially the moral implications of “things,” is central to this relativist problem.

And finally, I run into the issue of “fact” all the time.  What is a historical fact?  It is a fact that September 17, 1787 is the final day of the Constitutional Convention, but is that when we became a nation?  Or should it be the more popular date of July 4, 1776?  But really, apart from some editorial work, the Declaration of Independence was “done” on July 3.  So this problem is one of interpretation, or perhaps the conflict of objectivity vs. subjectivity.  And especially once I put it in those terms, folks get real emotional.  In modern history, it’s all about objectivity.  In fact, all of education is seeking to become a solid set of objective facts, standards, and metrics.  So if we are going to imply that any knowledge of the past might require subjectivity, then we are walking on educational thin ice.

And at its heart, it is the combination of these three, especially the last, that provide real problems when I try to teach history to contemporary students without falling prey to these problems.  But this is long enough for now, so I will seek to follow up with thoughts on how to push back on these problems soon.

Burning_Constitution

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