History and Relevance

Today I finished my two-day Gilder-Lehrman workshop in Boca Raton. (See my last post). Today I lectured for 90 minutes (with much fruitful discussion along the way) on the development of internal improvements in the early republic. Then I spent another 90 minutes leading a discussion of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair and its implications for how historians are rethinking slavery and race.

But perhaps the best conversation of the day was centered on how to make history “relevant” for students. Several teachers I talked with, both in the formal setting of the workshop and privately during our breaks, seemed frustrated with the fact that most of their students were only interested in history if it had some direct connection to their everyday lives. One Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher told me that his students just don’t care about history unless it satisfies some personal need in their lives.

I sympathize with these teachers. It is not easy to make a required history course relevant to 8th graders. And I certainly believe that history becomes more accessible to students when teachers can show them how it might relate to something going on in current events or in their own life.

Yet, I wondered aloud with the teachers, whether “relevance” is the PRIMARY goal of teaching history. Some of the teachers resisted this idea.

Let me repost a quote from Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Historical Acts, one that I have posted a few times on this blog and have taped to my office door at work:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image. Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite; to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeing moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of human history.

Again, I wonder. By catering to “relevance” when teaching history are we encouraging our student’s “narcissism?” Rather than challenging our students to “go beyond” their “brief life” by challenging them to enter a foreign historical world that will force them to develop virtues necessary for life, we feed their natural need for seeing their “own image” in the past. It seems to me that students can do this kind of “relevant” self-reflection in a host of courses–civics, social studies, current events, etc… But this is NOT the primary goal when teaching our students the DISCIPLINE OF HISTORY.

What do you think? Is teaching historical thinking possible in a middle-school classroom? A high school classroom? If Wineburg is right, and I think he is, then how do we lead out students “outward?”

We have a lot to think about.

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