Ed Ayers: The “past can’t be reduced to static variables and predictable outcomes”


Here is the University of Richmond historian‘s piece at Medium:

History is best explained by supple narratives of sequence, change, and consequence. We call those narratives stories. All humans understand stories and explain themselves and their worlds in stories. Even children can handle ambiguity and change, mistake and result, growth, and triumph. We intuitively turn to stories in novels, films, and video games to explain history. We should do the same in our classrooms.

The story of the American Civil War, for example, can be told even to young students with three main characters and plot lines. First, the states of the Confederacy wanted to establish their own nation where the future of slavery could never be infringed upon or threatened. The second plot line is that of the United States, which went to war to defend its existence and eventually discovered that it could not do so without destroying slavery.

The third plot line is that of enslaved people, who did everything they could to escape and then destroy slavery from the first moments of the war until after formal battles had ended. Two-hundred thousand African American men played critical roles in preserving the United States, as well as in winning black freedom. Other enslaved people, of all backgrounds, risked their lives to free themselves.

Students presented with variables rather than solutions quickly see that the principles describing the physical world do not apply to the multivariate and chaotic world of history. While that might be alarming at first, it will engage and teach them in more profound ways. Trying, and even failing, to solve a problem is more satisfying than finding the correct answer in the back of the book — especially if that answer only appears to be correct.

Read the entire piece here.