Teach history by researching it

On Jan. 2, the Plattsburgh Press-Republican published a much-needed commentary entitled “An appreciation of history.” This commentary was written by David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Shribman rightly gives voice to the growing concern that a sense of history in today’s society has diminished in favor of personal fulfillment of career paths across a wide spectrum of options. This is particularly troublesome since “a grounding in history has been an indispensable aid to understanding how the world works, in discovering that how the world works changes over time and in realizing that the past itself is not static but instead is ever-changing.” He goes on to say that history’s benefits are “essential elements of being a citizen in a democracy and of being a human in a period of change.”

Expanding on Shribman’s thesis, as a teacher of history in the elementary, middle and junior high school and a longtime teacher of teachers, I agree that “the study of history is more than memorization of dates.” And “like so many other disciplines the teaching of history itself must change.” While he discusses problems facing history in higher academia, I’m interested in what to do about the situation long before learners reach the college and university settings.

While studying at Teachers College Columbia University in the early 1960s, I enrolled in a course called “Ways of Knowing” offered by Professor Philip Phenix. His course was initiated in response to the movement to establish mathematics and science as the saviors of our country in a threatening world, rescued from the “fuzzy-minded” emphases of the humanities. This marked the early beginnings of the movement to standardize education and measure gains with a standardized test. While a standardized curriculum existed prior to this movement, it soon became standardization on steroids. Project-based education is once again emerging as an alternative.

Members of Phenix’s classes fanned out within the New York metropolitan area to interview persons whose reputations warranted their titles as historians, geographers, physicists, philosophers, etc., asking them to explain what made them unique, what modes of inquiry they ascribed to, what organizing principles and key concepts were held dear to their heart. The information from the interviews was placed in categories labeled “realms of meaning” on the basis of similarities regarding process and structure of the disciplines.

There were six realms identified, and history, geography, cultural anthropology, religion and philosophy were considered “synoptic” disciplines, providing an overview that draws interpretations from other realms of meaning — namely, empirics, symbolics, ethics, aesthetics and synnoetics. Phenix wrote a book regarding this information entitled “Realms of Meaning — A Philosophy of Curriculum for General Education.” At the same time, Clifford Lord published “Teaching History with Community Resources.” In spite of these superb descriptions of the nature and importance of history, ideas for learning history expressed in these works never materialized in public schools, partly because original sources for local studies were not available, until recently.

Prior to experiencing Phenix’s course, I had been introduced to history as a discipline by a professor of history, the parent of a student in my junior high school class. I had been teaching history essentially as memorization of the so-called facts of history, excluding the world around the students. Since this professor of history taught his history courses from primary sources, he was not pleased with what I was doing to or for his daughter.

As a result of this challenge, we introduced my class to history and geography as disciplines, as organized ways of creating knowledge. We placed the primary documents about the local area, along with the methods of historical inquiry, in the hands of students. The results were phenomenal, and it launched many years of searching for ways to reproduce and disseminate local primary documents for classroom use. It wasn’t until recently, with the advent of digital technological advances, that local primary documents could be made available online to every classroom.

As a member of the local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, a recent feasibility study was launched at the fifth-grade level in a local school based on the earlier experiences. The program was labeled America’s Past Through the Eyes of Local History. It required student inquiry without knowing the answers going in and expecting the teachers to be facilitators of that process. The program featured a computerized assessment, record keeping and evaluation system that was to be essentially student managed to keep tract of experiences and what was done with them. A prototype online databank of local sources was developed to support implementation of the program.

The program began with ancestral research, followed by an in-depth study from original sources regarding various points in time, including the natural-physical features, the social-cultural characteristics, the economic and political structures and processes of the local township and county.

The feasibility study showed that the ancestral study was accepted into the routines of schooling since it could be considered a unit of study that fit the standard curriculum. The in-depth study of the local area presented problems since a change such as this impacted all the other parts of the school system. Implementation within the standardized curriculum appeared impossible short of complex systemic changes.

It is believed that in-depth study of local history and geography is a missing link in the curriculum of the school, and without this study, students lack a valid framework that serves as a foundation for understanding themselves, theirs and others’ surroundings and other times, an effective motivator for continuing to enthusiastically embrace history and geography.

Deficient preparation of educators in facilitating learning through inquiry using the methods and materials of disciplines, coupled with a reluctance to change, leads me to keep looking for a breakthrough and perhaps the time has come.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.

COMMENTS