How Not to Teach History

My first semester as a college student — I was fifteen and taking college classes at a local tech school through a thing called PSEO, which hardly anybody seems to have heard of even at the schools — I took a composition class and a history class. Composition was on-campus, history — sorry, Western Civilization — online.

One of the assignments involved posting “discussions”, at least three per week. Since no one was required to reply to anyone, these “discussions” were almost always monologues. The teacher encouraged us to copy and paste from the textbook and post those paragraphs as our discussions, saying that that way he would know we understood the material. I thought he was joking, but when nobody ever got punished for plagiarising, I changed my question to “Is he mad?”

On the extremely rare occasions that someone said something controversial (me), someone might reply, but for every response that took the original post seriously, someone would pop in and say officiously that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, thus shutting down any real discussion which might have been.

Grave errors went unchecked. If you posted a single line about “Abeland and Helosie” when the chapter for the week mentioned Abelard and Heloise, the teacher never bothered to correct you. If you mixed up which century someone lived in, nobody mentioned it. The poor uneducated average American, when posting something to the effect that “all families with more than two children are living off government welfare” did not expect me to indignantly correct his facts.

And this is not all. The teacher repeatedly impressed upon us his chief end for this class: to enable us to pass the exams. If the class did poorly on the exam (as it inevitably did), he’d drop the questions the most people got wrong, and increase our grade. This is no way to encourage a desire for learning.

But that was still not the worst of it, though the deep flaw in his presuppositions that allowed him to teach us for that reason in the first place still bothers me. You might think a teacher couldn’t get any worse than to say the purpose of “learning” about great men of old is to get at least a C on a test. If you let students think that, and then reward them by improving their grades when they do poorly, they’ll slack. They’ll cram for the test — and they will pass, oh yes, if you’re so indulgent, but they won’t leave class with a greater understanding — scratch that, with any understanding beyond the little they came with — or love of history. They will be condemned to repeat it, because they won’t know what errors to avoid. And those that enter class loving history, as I did, will very likely leave with that love withered.

The worst of it was the movies. We had to watch O Brother Where Art Thou, Gladiator, Robin Hood (with Russel Crowe), and something else I forget, for the first half of the class. The teacher explained that movies often get history wrong — probably his only statement all semester that I agree with — and so we were to watch these movies, having already learned about the periods they were related to, with a discerning eye. All well and good on the face of it. I could find only two problems in practice. One, I was not the only PSEO student in that class. Fifteen years old and I was supposed to watch R-rated movies? Whose bright idea was that? (I learned, by the way, that there’s no difference between PG-13 and R.) Secondly, the historical problems with the movies were never brought up again. And in the second half of the class, which was on-campus the next semester, we watched movies again — and though very few people were in both classes, so you’d think some ideas would bear repeating, he never said why we were watching movies, never mentioned the idea that they get history wrong. It was almost as if the errors were an excuse to watch movies instead of doing school, and not to point out that you can’t trust a cinematic view of history.

I wasted a year on “history” to no purpose. I passed both classes, because that’s what home-schooled students do. But I can’t say I learned anything about history. In fact my former love for it was snuffed out. In a later post I will put forward my ideas on the right way to teach history, and what renewed my love for it.

History is not, perhaps, an entirely “useful” subject. My expectations for the class were probably a little too high, given the school’s emphasis on useful majors like Fluid Power or Electrical Engineering, degrees that only take two years and guarantee you a job immediately after graduation. Within a school that assumes the purpose of education is to get a job, the Humanities department will shrivel until it is no more. Humanities don’t pay well. All the same, if you are going to bother with history at all, or with any discipline that requires exercise of the little grey cells, you might as well do it give it a fair chance.

Why do we learn history?

Is it to pass a test? Well, if you are going to be tested at all, why not over something you can make use of in the future, something profitable?

Is it to avoid making the mistakes of the past? If so, shouldn’t history classes be careful to explain the many and complicated causes behind events, so we can recognize the signs and avert future disasters? Letting students post a sentence or two about poor Abeland and Helosie online every week doesn’t seem likely to help with that.

Is it because the people who lived before us, who helped us (for good or ill) to where we are now, were real live people who ate and slept and loved and fought and worshipped, kind of like people alive today? Is it because their efforts to preserve civilization, make art, and glorify God are worthy of remembrance? In that case, I fear, Western Civ. failed utterly.

As with everything, when you teach history you must always bear in mind why you are doing it. Your reasons will show even if you never state them. If your reasons are faulty, unless you are inconsistent, your teaching will be too.

What if we learn history because it’s another way of learning how to think?


About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
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2 Responses to How Not to Teach History

  1. cconnelly9638 says:

    As someone who went through the same courses with the same instructor (albeit entirely online), I couldn’t agree more with this post. There certainly was little to no effort on the part of the instructor to have us think critically about the material presented. The study of history should be more than empty memorization of (misspelled) names and dates. Unfortunately we were robbed of that opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • noliealcarturiel says:

      Empty memorization is one of the most annoying things, because if you don’t know why you’re bothering to learn them, it’s very easy to forget and they don’t do you any good. I used to be really bad at dates, but once I started thinking of, say, Alfred, as a real person and not just a shadowy figure who lived from such a date to such a date, it got better. Alfred might not be the best example because still I can’t remember when he lived, except that it was the ninth century (I think).


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