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Teaching History     –     backwards

October 2004
Trying to teach children ancient history before they know what history really is makes no sense and rarely leads students to want to learn more.
(This piece may seem to be about details regarding the teaching of an academic subject. But it's not; it's about how we ensure that our children become citizens who have a good understanding of the workings of the world; so vital in these times, and unfortunately so rare in our country. At present our schools are failing in this regard.)

How many really boring history classes did you have in school? Several, like myself? I'm afraid my experiences with elementary and high school history classes were almost unfailingly negative; nothing could be more boring. Yet now I find nothing more fascinating than our history. And what could be? History is us, it's what we do; what we have done; how we got here. History holds all our guideposts, and all our warning signs. Understanding what has gone before imbues us with the necessary tools to face the future. With history being innately so interesting, what makes it come out so dull in school?

Of course there are the usual suspects: Teachers who lack the necessary tools to be good teachers: Fascination with, enthusiasm for, and thorough knowledge of their subject along with excellent teaching skills. But we're not about to change that very quickly. I'll suggest another factor that helps to make school-history deadly dull: Its apparent irrelevance to the student and his concerns. Most of history seems irrelevant because it is distant. Very distant, usually both chronologically and geographically. World history courses start out how? With ancient civilizations. And American history courses start with the pre-revolutionary colonies. So of course it's irrelevant! I will suggest that students aren't able to understand or appreciate or care about or find relevant these ancient histories until they've learned the connection between the past and the present. And the only way they will grasp that concept is to learn about their own time and it's relation to what went immediately before. If you're wondering whether I'm advocating teaching recent history first, you're exactly right.

Time moves in one direction, or so it seems. And so does history – from the past to the present. It has always been obvious that that's the way you teach history. You begin at the beginning. Obvious – but perhaps obviously wrong. What's been happening in our schools has been a futile effort to teach our kids the academic subject "history" without first teaching them what makes history and what it is.

In order for kids to understand the idea of "history", to understand that it's what we are all doing right now, the only course that makes sense is to begin with what's going on right now, something the students might actually care about, and tie these happenings, small and large, to that which has gone on before. Next, why are their parents the way they are – what was their world like when they grew up? After going on to the age of their grandparents, we may hope that the kids have enough grasp of the lively processes that makes history that they will be able to study distant eras with some understanding. But feeding uninstructed children the civilizations of the Medes and Babylonians is foolish, and is a sure way to lose their interest – perhaps for life. Not all will be lucky enough to find mentors later who can undo the damage done to them in our educational system.

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo

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