To remain ignorant of things that happened
before you were born is to remain a child.
Why Subjects Must Be Taught As History
“Every teacher must be a history teacher,” said Neil Postman in his book Technopoly (189). It is a seemingly radical idea that goes against the specialization of knowledge—an ideal in current American thought. There are English teachers, Biology teachers, Art teachers, Economics teachers, History teachers, etc. Everyone knows that to ask an Economics teacher to explain American Literature is folly (an interesting proposal from Postman and Weingartner in Teaching as a Subversive Activity is to “have ‘English’ teachers ‘teach’ Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on” (138) which would be quite amusing).
We all tend to think of History as a separate course in school (because it is presented that way), but it really isn’t. To teach history as a separate course and not teach it in every course is a gross misunderstanding of our world and how we learn. It is worth, as usual, to quote Postman at length on this:
History is not merely one subject among many that may be taught; every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. . . . To teach, for example, what we know about biology today without also teaching what we once knew, or thought we knew, is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product. It is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what we know, and of how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli, to teach about music without Haydn, is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation. It is to deny them knowledge of their roots, about which no other social institution is at present concerned. For to know about your roots is not merely to know where your grandfather came from and what he had to endure. It is also to know where your ideas come from and why you happen to believe them; to know where your moral and aesthetic sensibilities come from. It is to know where your world, not just your family, comes from. (Postman, Technopoly, 189)
I find Postman very insightful. His ideas seem very straightforward once one thinks about it, but the problem is that most people don’t think about it. Unfortunately, anyone who has been through public (and most private) education can attest to the “consumer product of knowledge”. It is something to be taken in at mass quantities; chewed and spit back out without digestion. As long as you memorize the facts for the test, you can get out of school with straight A’s and not be smarter than when you started, as Postman and Weingartner describe:
If you are over twenty-five years of age, the mathematics you were taught in school is “old”; the grammar you were taught is obsolete and in disrepute; the biology, completely out of date, and the history, open to serious question. The best that can be said of you, assuming that you remember most of what you were told and read, is that you are a walking encyclopedia of outdated information. (Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 11)
But when subjects are taught as history something different happens. You learn about the progression of human knowledge, and realize that we might not be right about everything. Science, technology, society, art, religion—we are not at the pinnacle of them. There is a history for each area, and, Lord willing, we will continue to progress and refine and redevelop our theories. Currently, you cannot question science. Before, you could not question religion (or more specifically, revelation from God). Yet the tide may turn again—it would not be unheard of. This is how Postman puts it:
I would recommend that every subject be taught as history. In this way, children, even in the earliest grades, can begin to understand, as they now do not, that knowledge is not a fixed thing but a stage in human development, with a past and a future. . . . the history of subjects teaches connections; it teaches that the world is not created anew each day, that everyone stands on someone else’s shoulders. (Postman, Technopoly, 190)
One reason I am saying all this—other than my obvious plea for historical continuities in subjects—is that some of the upcoming articles I will be publishing will be on the history of various things, and it is important to know why I think it is important. Right now I am planning to write on the history the Internet, and the history of advertising, as these two subjects affect each of our lives in an almost unfathomable way. To not understand their basic histories is to reduce us to mere consumers of knowledge, not understanding the world we live in and its affect on us. Knowing the history of something breaks its power of myth over us so that it can no longer control us like it did, for we know how it was created and how it is being used. Unfortunately, many people do not know the history of humanity much less computers and advertising and cars and electricity, and we are paying a costly price for it.
How Subjects Could Be Taught As History
Now that we have established that this kind of education is necessary, how should we go about it? I must admit that I am not qualified to present a curriculum—however, I personally favor a modified Great Books / Trivium approach. For those who may not have heard of the Great Books curriculum, Allan Bloom describes it as:
[R]eading certain generally recognized classic texts, just reading them, letting them dictate what the questions are and the method of approaching them—not forcing them into categories we make up, not treating them as historical products, but trying to read them as their authors wished them to be read…. [W]herever the Great Books make up a central part of the curriculum, the students are excited and satisfied, feel they are doing something that is independent and fulfilling, getting something from the university they cannot get elsewhere. The very fact of this special experience, which leads nowhere beyond itself, provides them with a new alternative and a respect for study itself. (Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 344)
This has been my experience, although I did not enjoy the program when I was in it because I was never taught how to read books—it was somehow assumed we already knew. To their credit, they did recommend How to Read a Book to us, but it was not required reading, so I can’t imagine they thought we had the time to read it (I have since found The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer to be more practical, including helpful annotated bibliographies by genre).
When I went through the Great Books program, it was done chronologically, which I think is a bad idea for many reasons. Suffice it to say that you spend much effort trying to grasp one book, but then quickly go on to another of a completely different topic, which creates confusion and frustration for the student. A modified Great Books program would go through the books topically, instead of chronologically, taking ample time to understand the author’s presuppositions and arguments while at the same time entering into “critical conversation” with them.
Teachers in public schools (or other schools where they may not have the liberty of teaching this kind of curriculum) may have to use a different approach, if allowed. A possible substitution would be mixing the history of the course they are teaching along with the current theories and methodologies they are supposed to be teaching. This will then let the history teacher be free to actually teach histories:
The teaching of subjects as studies in historical continuities is not intended to make history as a special subject irrelevant. If every subject is taught with a historical dimension, the history teacher will be free to teach what histories are: hypotheses and theories about why change occurs….
There is no definitive history of anything; there are only histories, human inventions which do not give us the answer, but give us only those answers called forth by the questions that have been asked. Historians know all of this—it is a commonplace idea among them. Yet it is kept a secret from our youth. (Postman, Technopoly, 191)
History makes a lot more sense when you can see the relationship of different ideas and events to one another. So many “world history” books give you a plethora of information (information glut) and you cannot easily see how each idea affects another. It all just seems to happen. You do not learn such things like how the Gutenberg press affected the Reformation; or how the Reformation affected America; or how America, founded on the printing press, left it for imagery. Of course, if there were no printing press, there would be no America—yet history is not usually presented in that format.
Students deserve more than merely learning the current views of a subject. They deserve to learn there is a Great Conversation through history and to converse in it. They deserve to receive an education that explains who invented or thought of something first, how it developed, where it is now, and where it might be going. When teachers do this, students will begin to understand that education is more than mindless facts, context-free information, and multiple-choice standardized testing. There will be connections between events and subjects, and students will be more thoughtful and understand our world better because of it. It is my hope that by implementing this type of curriculum in all subjects, we can restore the intellectual heritage of America instead of the continued downslide of modern education.