How I teach history—daily, in my high school classroom—is a complex affair. It not only involves pedagogical strategies and content preparation, but also many hours of reflection on why history is taught and even if it really exists! Thus there are philosophical, scholarly, and classroom issues about the subject of history, and I would like to share some of my reflections on them.
The teaching of history has for so long been a requirement of state-run education in modern nations that we—teachers, parents, students, citizens—accept it unquestioningly. Of course, those of us who study the history of history realize that histories have obvious political value to the status quo of all societies and are usually bent to make a people look good to outsiders and to themselves. Thus history is the mainstay of ‘cultural literacy’ and of any attempt to define the character and legacy of a culture.
But if we as educators or historians question this use of history in schools as a nationalistic or xenophobic tool, we then need to ask ourselves what value history has in formal education, and, really, what value it has at all. Probably the most frequent reason given in support of the study of history is that it can help us understand the present. My Canadian colleague came up to me the other day and said that through the study of American literature and its attendant history she is finally beginning to understand Americans. But I wonder.
Humans tend to be very pattern seeking animals, and certainly patterns, differentiations, and classifications help us function and survive. But there is a downside to focussing on predesignated similarities and neglecting all other differences. In this process of abstraction, we will miss ‘background’ data that seems negligible (i.e. doesn’t fit the pattern) but often turns out to thwart our purposes, invalidate our experiments, distort our historical interpretations, and underrate our social relationships. Just as we sometimes try to make our acquaintances fit into a pattern or familiar image, so we try to fit current events into historical patterns. The similarities that present phenomena share with past phenomena— the ones we focus on to construct our patterns—are certainly not the ‘essence’ of those phenomena (phenomena are multidimensional and thus have no single underlying essence) nor necessarily the most representative or useful aspects of those events.
A common illustration from history is the recurring shaping of military strategy on previous historical strategies. For example, in comparing the current military preparedness of a nation with a similar situation centuries ago, strategists may focus on similarities of firepower and neglect environmental adaptability—and send troops with superior firepower to their demise because they were unable to cope with an unexpected or novel environment. Closer to home, in my world history class we’ve been studying Confucianism in ancient China and Japan, and I keep ‘recognizing’ Confucian cultural influences in the character of my Taiwanese student—even though his self-discipline and orderliness may just be individual personality traits.
Politics and economics are always so complex—dealing with unchartable interplays of nations, leaders, resources, ulterior motives, ‘perceptions, ’ traditions, etc.—that not only does it seem impossible to apply historical wisdom to present policy, but in looking at history it doesn’t seem like it has helped very much! The political and economic processes actually appear to go like this: decision based on historical precedent or similarity fails flatly; protagonists and antagonists adjust accordingly; and so on ad infinitum.
With religion, another of those institutions that shape human destiny, it may be even worse. Greed and fear and hatred have always driven politics and economics, and it seems this aspect of the human condition doesn’t change. But the psychological underpinnings of historical religions may be involved in worldviews that have actually changed over time. When we look at religious myths and salvational psychologies, they often seem so alien and even preposterous that perhaps they belong to a consciousness that is fundamentally different from ours, to worldviews that have radically altered over millennia. In which case, trying to fit our existential dilemmas and soteriological needs into ancient religious wisdoms may be impossible and ill-aimed.
Perhaps this is why Krishnamurti so emphatically stressed seeing one’s individual situation by itself and not through the patterns of historical traditions. He often said the solution to a problem lay in the problem itself, and not in the application of generalized outside values to what are unique situations. On the other hand, maybe what Krishnamurti said about the world being found in each of us applies to time as well as space: perhaps ‘history is us’ as well. In this sense seeing ‘ourselves’ everywhere in history would be instructive and could be a reason to study history. But it wouldn’t take much study to understand the glories and follies of humans and how we ourselves represent that movement— certainly not years of detailed historical examination.
So I remain skeptical as to the value of‘learning from history’ or studying history in order to understand the present. I do, however, often look at history as something‘artistic’, rather than didactic—and that has to do with the spectacle of our species. To me it is just plain interesting to see how humans have evolved culturally. I find it fascinating to see other lifestyles aimed at solving the same problems of survival and fulfillment. And I suppose if I borrow something from these other attempts I am learning from history, but it seems to be on a much more material level.
In my world history class we are studying four separate histories for the year: the history of food, the history of shelter/ architecture, the history of war, and the history of the family. The rather uneven evolution of, say, food or of shelter design can be seen as pattern, but, in reality, contemporary architecture owes as much to present engineering and materialscrafting know-how as it does to any historical evolution, and it is hard to see any patterns in the chequered development of food in ancient China that makes today’s Chinese cuisine ‘understandable’. But what cultures do creatively with the resourcesat hand is interesting to study.
Aside from these (and other) philosophical issues about history, there are also plenty of scholarship ones. The science of historiography teaches us the myriad fallacies that befall the recording and interpreting of history. Many of these are common logical fallacies (misinterpretations of evidence), but some are peculiar to history—and all can and should be taught alongside the content of any history. I like to teach historiography in terms of truth; that way history and science and math and philosophy can be compared in terms of the nuances of a complex concept of truth. Thus, we can never be absolutely certain that historical events happened or happened the way they come down to us, but we can be as ‘probably’ sure as in many other ‘sciences’. There are rational historiographical procedures to discern the truth of records and artifacts, and though not foolproof these tend to be reliable. But again, the point is not to lust after certainty, or to slavishly build society upon ‘solid’ historical foundations, butrather to appreciate the parade of history.
And lastly there are classroom or pedagogical issues. There are developmental constraints on just how abstractly the historical and meta-historical information can be presented to high school students. There is also the ‘interest’ factor in any study, and history draws some students to it and bores others. A teacher can try to overcome student disinterest in history through finding as much relevance and human detail as possible, but this willalways be a challenge.
Sometimes, disinterest for history involves learning style differences. This can be helped by alternating aspects of history (e.g. from architecture and art to oral narrative to technology to written data) and by including hands-on work (art, building, gardening, etc.). All history teachers have their own historical passions, and one of mine concerns certain fundamental human‘arts’ like planting grains and buildingshelters and making fire and baking in earlymud ovens. As we study the agriculturalrevolution, for example, we plant thosegrains, gather acorns (our local indigenousstaple), build pit and adobe ovens, makemush and bake flatbread, etc. to participatein these ancient (and contemporary) ways. It seems easier to understand the properrelationship of technology to resources tohuman labour to community in our humanbeginnings than it does in our modernurban technological civilization.
Then there are the ‘depth’ and‘breadth’ issues. Historical ‘depth’ refers to the degree of substantiation of historical facts and to the layered exploration of historical causes and conditions. These may involve ‘interest’ issues (a child may not want to know that much), research issues (where to find the in-depth information) and classroom time constraints.
Breadth issues are in some ways more philosophical: how ‘history’ satisfies course and ‘cultural literacy’ expectations. Obviously, historical analysis of any significant area (the U.S., Great Britain, India, the world) can go on forever: historians discover new facts, reinterpret old ones, create new patterns, adopt new perspectives, etc. What criteria besides the length of the course and the preparedness of the teacher could possibly dictate the scope of historical studies? Cultural literacy traditions choose an arbitrary sampling of‘major’ events and persons, but this may vary widely from the actual understanding of cultures past or present. One’s purpose in teaching history will certainly enter this determination. Since I do not particularly cater to any set of cultural literacy standards—and because I teach history as pageant—I can choose my own ‘sampling’ (e.g. food, war, shelter) and go into depth periodically to illustrate some point or to bring the studies home. I do try to give brief overviews of the entire scope and fix some time parameters (dates).
The teaching of history is not an isolated event in school. For the present, it is tied into national and cultural identity, and will remain part of core curricula until many other things in our societies change. But even if we as history teachers— especially teachers in Krishnamurti schools—choose not to support traditional purposes for history, we must realize that history is one of those subjects that incorporates so many interesting and important human creations: logical investigation, archeological exploration, reflections upon truth, problem-solving, technological evolution, human ingenuity.
If only for these ‘peripheral’ issues, history would be a worthwhile subject to teach—unless of course we replaced it altogether with other courses that equally capture these phenomena. But that’s another story.