Is History Dead?

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I suspect that a good deal of the moral and spiritual confusion of our day is related to the failure of most people to feel themselves a part of history. Boris Pasternak wrote that man does not die like a dog in a ditch but lives in history. Professional historians have performed a prefrontal lobotomy on the historical consciousness of the American people by embalming our past in scholarly monographs read only by other historians. But they are no substitute for those grander and more spacious narrative histories available to the general reader in the nineteenth century. If the historian does not mediate the past with the present he becomes a luxury society cannot afford.

In order to teach history effectively on the elementary and secondary school level it is necessary to jettison the whole existing schema of academic history and start over with history as experience , rather than history as abstraction, history as nationalistic propaganda, or history as facts. We should start not where the teacher is but where the student is.

One of the most rewarding exercises that I discovered in my own teaching of history was to pair students off, each to write the biography of the other. This utilizes the natural curiosity of the student. They ask each other questions they often would not think of asking themselves: What do your father and mother do for a living?; where did they come from?; where are your grandmother and grandfather, aunts and uncles?; how far back can you trace your ancestors and from what country are they? All those things place us in time and space, in history.

With this kind of incentive, students have often written to relatives who were known to be repositories of family history to collect material about their antecedents. Usually, unless the class is uncommonly homogeneous in background, students discover that a kind of minor congress of nations and races is represented in the classroom itself. In any event, a resourceful teacher will create substantial segments of American history out of the materials that the students have collected about each other.

Another history class might wish to compose a history of its school, and by doing that enter quite naturally into the history of education in America (and the world). And, of course, there is an inexhaustible field for neighborhood and local history, for which interviewing older people in the community should be a basic technique. Each month the class might have an official historian of the class itself, a chronicler charged with organizing the work of the class in such a way as to relate the activities of the class to contemporary events of world history. One student or a group of students might be charged with presenting the Arab case to the United Nations Security Council while another offers the case for the Israelis. One segment of historical studies could start with reports by students on the day’s news. The guiding principle is that history is not “something” in textbooks, but part of the daily experience of every student.

Against the notion of history as facts, I propose the notion of history as drama. I found that my students responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to write plays, or television and movie scripts, dealing with incidents, characters, events, and themes in American history.

An important resource can be found in historical novels—stories like Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes, LeGrande Cannon’s Look to the Mountain , and Conrad Richter’s The Trees .

Most useful as resources are the original accounts by participants in historical events, such as Sally Wister’s Diary , a young Quaker girl’s reaction to the American Revolution, and Christopher Hawkins’ account of his adventures on an American privateer during the Revolution.

Art is also an effective way to introduce students to history. Paintings have the virtue of solidifying ideas in a striking way. To move from the eighteenth century’s emphasis on portraiture to the landscapes of the romantic era, and then to the domestic interiors of the late nineteenth century is to track the shift from a cool, classical mode with emphasis on the power of distinguished faces (especially the faces of heroes) to the warm landscapes of the Hudson River School with their lyrical space, and to the interior space of the upper-class family living room. That is a history lesson in itself.

Music, too, is essential as a “source” of history, and its range is vast because the music of different cultures or of different groups within a culture is so striking.

It is essential for a history class to get out of the classroom and into the community. Marc Bloch said historians needed stouter boots, the implication being they should get out of their studies and onto the ground where history took place. In this same spirit, a history class might try to reconstruct the character of the original settlement of the community by a visit to the local graveyard, where the names and dates on the headstones would provide clues to the history of the town. And certainly to the community’s hall of records to poke among early deeds and wills, where every community has substantial amounts of history hidden away.