Should History be Compulsory?

Once people pass out of the school system, everyone forms an opinion on what kids “should learn”. It’s like politics, it gets heated, and people get angry, but just like politics has a real world effect, so too does our schooling system.

So-called curriculum and the various ways of measuring it (A levels, SAT, outcome-based education) are real, because our kids are subjected to six years of it. So much of schooling is about peers and socialisation, but there is all this time spent in classrooms too.

So what makes a good foundation? The three R’s (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic) are taught at lower levels, and I take as a given. The latter two years of high school give students a choice in what they focus on, so there is personal discretion there. What of the middle years?

I wonder if history should be given a greater emphasis. Not the dates, but a broad grasp of civilisation and different cultures. Seeing all the mistakes and wrong turns taken, where positive steps have been made, how slavery was ended, how the vote was won. This “informing” of the mind to know where we came from to understand the world of today.

And this historical learning doesn’t go out-of-date (pardon the pun). It gives individuals tools for thinking about the world, and analysing events. Learning history seems to be empowering.

Of course, there are those who argue that history is highly subjective, and always filtered to present a particular point of view. There is some merit in that. But ignorance, and only studying “objective” sciences is no answer either. Better to be have an open system that allows people to question and redress any biases that may exist.

I can coming to the view that learning History may be a a very positive thing for young people (and slightly older ones too).

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13 Responses to “Should History be Compulsory?”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Of course, I’m somewhat biased- my anticipated career depends on people continuing to consider history to be important- but even without that bias, I couldn’t agree more. I think that history, because it does have a greater “subjectivity” than science, can act as a sort of counter-balance to the over-assumptions of science. The discipline of history itself falls somewhere in a gray region between science, philosophy, and art; as such it tends to penetrate, at its high points, into human experience to a greater degree than either art, philosophy, or science on their own could do. One must consider human experience, as far as one can, wholistically, to make sense of history.

    Sorting through the complexities of history is an excellent corrective for a smug self-approval of one’s knowledge or presumed knowledge; it is also an excellent guide to recognizing the follies and inanities of one’s own time.

  2. homeyra Says:

    I vote for.
    We have heard, more than once, harsh statements, which could have turned into a constructive / interesting exchange – had the parties recognized their common backgrounds.

  3. philramble Says:

    The education system around the world connects not only the students and the government which supports their education, but also the lawmakers, lawgivers and politicians to the impressionable minds of the students. It is indeed proper for students to learn about their respective countries, or their cultures and the historical events which shaped their society. However, there is the trouble of coercive influences which can cause history books to be manipulated to a point where the students are no longer studying history, but someone’s version of what happened in the past. And this necessarily restricts the world view of the students who are studying it to the world view of that person, or the contrived or intended direction which the nation/education system wanted to lead them in.

    This is a problem in India atleast, where several history books and education boards get bad press reports for inaccurate data and the like. Another case in point, albeit in the context of science education is the tussle between “intelligent design” and science in American schools.

  4. Naughty Heather Says:

    I would love to see history taught using biographies…let students get inside the minds of the key players – talk about the bias (the winners write history) – let them dig deeper and (GASP) come to their own conclusions. I think this is far more meaningful than x number of people died at the Battle of the Blah Blah…if we want history NOT to repeat itself, we can’t just make kids learn it through rote memorization. We have to make it mean something.

  5. caveblogem Says:

    I second Naughty Heather. I hated history in school. I hated it until I graduated from college. It was not at all interesting to me until I got into graduate school and found history books that were well-written and interesting, and biased towards particular points of view. Without a point of view and a narrowly focused subject, which is the case with all of the standard U.S. history texts, history is vague, bland, generalized, and doesn’t seem to add up to anything.

    Biography affords an excellent viewpoint from which to examine historical events. It is not the only way to make history engaging, but I suspect that it is the only way to do so that does not go over the heads of most of the students. Unfortunately, unless you read quite a few of them, it is difficult to get a handle on the broad, sweeping history of the entire world over a significant time period. For this sort of thing, I think the best approach is to choose a very biased account that most students will disagree with. Their anger at the approach, fanned carefully, can keep them engaged long enough to actually learn something.

  6. caveblogem Says:

    So to answer the actual question, I guess I think that it depends on how it is taught. I didn’t learn any history, really, until after I graduated from college. It wasn’t my lack of interest in the subject matter–I eventually was interested enough to earn a Ph.D. in it. It was my lack of interest in the history as it was presented and taught in school.

  7. broadsunlituplands Says:

    Absolutely! History, Geography, Language, Art, and Music give one an enduring and timeless education. They give one a sense of who and what they are, and allow a given civilization to have coherence. To the extent we eliminate the civilization knowledge in favor of faddish pseudo-education we develop alienated people. Bus. Ad., and Law should be taught in trade schools, for its ephemeral value. Sciences should have some classical grounding and framework: perhaps then some will use wisdom in the development of new military and civilian technologies.

  8. SilverTiger Says:

    Sorry if I seem to go off at a tangent (“Not for the first time!” you mutter) but I think the first thing to consider is what education is for.

    In Britain at least, the last few decades have seen the educational system endlessly tampered with by government. A number of failed experiments has been conducted, meaning that the guinea pigs concerned, real human beings, have been educationally scarred for life. Literacy and numeracy have sunk to appallingly low levels. Achievement targets, as measured by examinations, have been reduced. (Government says no but they lie.) As for an ability to think straight, well, “don’t go there”, to quote a modern idiom.

    Successive British governments (and no doubt those of other “developed” countries) seem to regard education as a tool of business: its purpose is to train the new generation for work. Every course in every subject must include stated vocational aims. Business has a very large say in what goes into the curriculum. “Education” in the true sense is almost a by-product.

    Early specialization is another bane. I have taught undergraduates in both the Humanities and Sciences. Many science undergraduates were almost illiterate and inarticulate while humanities undergraduates were almost proud of their total ignorance of science and mathematics. Only tardily is our government vaguely dreaming of making changes.

    I’m afraid the basics – reading, writing and arithmetic – can no longer be taken for granted. They may be on the curriculum but that is like putting caviar on the menu: it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone gets some.

    Taken in isolation, yes, history should be given emphasis, but in order to decide how much history should be taught and from what perspective it should be presented, we need to know what our aims are in educating tomorrow’s responsible adults (those who will be looking after you and me as we grow old). I don’t know whether good education would make a better world but I do think that poor education contributes to making a bad one.

    Email SilverTiger

  9. metaphorical Says:

    “Not the dates, but a broad grasp of civilisation and different cultures.”

    Why not the dates? We as humans have two great conceptual frameworks (not by coincidence, Kant’s transcendental categories): space and time.

    Try this experiment. Go to a store and buy something that costs, tax included, $19.29. When the cashier says the amount, you say, “That was a bad year.” Then watch their completely blank stare, as if you were speaking a dialect of Martian. (Then, optionally, go home and cry.)

    Try experiment #2: Find someone who has a strong, in your opinion and theirs, liberal arts education. Ask them to name a favorite classical work of music. Then ask them to name a single painting from the same decade, or even just to name an artist who was a contemporary of the composer of the work. Or, vice versa: name an artist and then a contemporary musician. For extra credit (and grief), throw in philosophers, architects, religious leaders, titans of industry, or then-current events.

    The timeline of history is a skeleton on which to hang a great deal of understanding. And there’s only two such skeletons available to us.

  10. ruthsplace Says:

    As a history teacher I have to applaud your post. In Australia we have largely moved away from teaching rote memorisation of dates and facts and instead focus on the process of history. Emphasis (at least in the state where I taught) was on the students’ ability to analyse and draw conclusions from the historical data. The study of history not only teaches how the world came to be, but also how the world can be shaped in the future.

  11. Dale Says:

    I haven’t taken much history beyond early high school myself, but I have studied English, and I think that some of the most important things that I’ve learnt are critical parts of history. As everyone’s pointed out, the ability to identify bias and intention in an assessment is crucial to an understanding of the history it’s meant to represent. So history is really important if it’s taught/proscribed correctly, because it should encourage students to question intention, bias and meaning/truth in all sorts of received information.

    Unfortunately, this method of teaching is far from prevalent in far too many places. As philramble points out, there are (too many) places where history is used to prevent this kind of thinking. Just about any repressive regime needs to doctor history in order to justify its power to its youth. And that’s not going to change in the near future.

  12. whig Says:

    The real tension, as I see it, is between the desires of the respective groupings of society to educate young people in different ways, with differing interpretations and sides in historical events. There are the religious institutions, the corporations, the state and others trying to recruit people into their ranks. Parents must take the largest role in educating their children about history, but so many parents are themselves ignorant of anything but what they see on television.

    It’s a tough problem not easily solved by any system of education that is hierarchical. The web is capable of replacing the traditional schools, with teachers of every subject on hand to help with students all across the world. I could envision a future when we won’t have to debate which history to teach because all will be available to read and consider, which means cultivating some skepticism about every version and learning how to reality-test our theories of the world.

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