Teaching History Backwards
Kevin Drum champions a teaching methodology for making history relevant to modern teenagers: teach it backwards.
[C]urrent events are intrinsically interesting, and learning about them make you genuinely curious about why the world ended up the way it did. If the lessons are structured with curiosity about causes in mind, this will make you interested in the Cold War, which in turn makes you interested in World War II, which in turn makes you interested in the Great Depression, etc.
That struck me as an interesting approach until I read Alex Massie‘s response. Building on Daniel Larison‘s contention that the approach fundamentally misunderstands both history and teenagers, Massey argues that,
History does not in fact travel along a straight line. It is not a series of linked events, each attached to its predecessor and successor in an endless chain that stretches back to the dawn of time. It’s risky enough moving forwards through history, suggesting that event A caused event B which in turn led to event C. To do so in reverse – C was caused by B therefore B was caused by A – is even worse. It betrays history.
Massie, whose experience with teenage history courses is from an elite Scottish boarding school, says one would have to be a “pretty rotten history teacher” to make history boring. Alas, he has never been in an American public high school, where teachers not only lack advanced degrees in their subject matter but are incredibly unlikely to have published cutting edge work in their field. “Coach” is a far, far more likely honorific for a high school history teacher than “Doctor.”
In some subjects, a reasonable technical knowledge of the subject is likely enough to get by at the high school level. I seldom had questions about chemistry, physics, or trigonometry that my college-educated teachers couldn’t answer, since I was mostly struggling to simply grasp the formulas under discussion. Conversely, there will generally be students with enough facility with and interest in history, politics, and economics that a teacher with nothing more than a few college credits in those subjects will simply be unable to answer. Teaching those subjects requires a deep passion and years of extensive reading. Expecting that from the assistant basketball coach is unreasonable.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which end of the timeline we start our history lessons if the teachers don’t know history.