One of the challenges in teaching history to college freshmen is overcoming the ingrained tendency to view history as a set of facts to be memorized. Far too few students REALLY KNOW how to read. They don’t experience reading as intellectual engagement with other minds, as an interactive experience. Therefore, they are often confused and struggle to understand what I mean when history is presented as a mentally active sport.
I have tried to explain my approach by writing a credo that guides my teaching. To get points across, I use current events to illustrate that past issues and patterns are recurring in the present in updated forms. The election campaign of 2016 and now the Trump Presidency are providing daily examples of why historical patterns must be recognized in order to comprehend political and social issues that will impact student’s lives as they become functioning adults in American society. The danger is that students will only perceive that my political views represent bias when the point is to expose them to a variety of opinions as they form their own views rather than passively mirror the ones they grew up hearing.
Here is the credo that is intended to help students view history interactively:
Expectations for this History Course
This course will present information and interpretations from the textbook along with insights and interpretations from the knowledge and personal experiences of the instructor. You do not have to agree with all that you hear – but you are expected to learn information, understand there are many competing interpretations, and that you must choose which competing values will guide your lives. Informed and active participation in current affairs will be strongly encouraged as the appropriate application of historical knowledge.
Key principles will be:
- History is not about a dead past but the living present.
Events from millions of years ago, as well as events in recent memory, make our lives what they are. Events we participate in during our lifetimes shape the future for next generations and the next million years.
- Information about the past is important, but putting it to use today and for the benefit of tomorrow is most important.
You inherit the benefits and problems from previous generations. You cannot avoid shaping important developments today – either by inaction or by taking right or wrong actions. It is better to be informed and work to shape the world in positive directions than to be carried with whatever tide sweeps us along.
- Our personal and cultural identities are tied to current variations in patterns that are tied to the entire history of the human species – and the future of the human species.
We are all migrants whose ancestors came from Africa and who keep wandering over the entire planet. Human beings have lived differently in the past and will continue to change ourselves and the earth. We have always changed the planet as we changed how we lived and must become increasingly aware of how decisions today increasingly effect the future of this planet and all life on it.
- Learning to distinguish reliable historical sources and interpretations is an essential skill for informed participation in our political system.
The convenience of information through social media and other Internet sources has promoted a deluge of propaganda, false information, and hoaxes that informed citizens must recognize on their own because the Internet does not filter out bad sources of information. All kinds of extremist groups (terror groups, racial supremacists, radical political movements) use false information to attract followers. Learning historical skills and accurate historical information is becoming increasingly important in the contemporary world.
I have become increasingly concerned about the impact of the Internet. Students are drawing most of their news of current events from social media, especially Facebook. The good news is that Facebook is beginning to perform a limited editorial role to eliminate obvious misinformation and propaganda.
The increasing spread of false and manipulative information — overt propaganda — over the Internet plus the success of Trump’s political attacks on responsible media outlets makes it increasingly important for Americans to understand and use skills of historians and journalists. Social and political values that hold together our society are under attack by manipulative Internet propagandists.
Knowing history and the skills of the historian are more important today than ever.