Reading, Writing And History


The brave mortal who makes the teaching of history his profession labors under many of the disadvantages that beset the editor of a newspaper. There is no set formula for him to follow, which is just another way of saying that there is no one right way for him to behave because in the end so much of his effectiveness depends on his ability to play it by ear. He has to have a wide background of training and experience, yet the real value of all of this depends on his ability to add insights and perceptions of his own, in which nobody can instruct him. Finally, he is forever aware that many of his fellow citizens consider him a dull bungler and honestly believe that they themselves could do his job much better than he does if they just set their minds to it.

It is this last point, probably, which is the heaviest cross to bear. Just as the editor cannot spend a week without hearing about all of the things that are wrong with newspapers, so the historian must constantly listen to complaints that history is not being properly taught anymore—if, indeed, it ever was. The fact that both editor and historian occasionally suspect gloomily that the critics speak from a complete lack of knowledge does not help very much. The ballplayer who pops up in a pinch is rarely comforted by the realization that the spectators who jeer at him are themselves hopelessly inexpert athletes.

It is of course true that there is much defective teaching, just as there is much defective editing—and, for the matter of that, much defective bricklaying, doctoring, cabinet-making, and ditch-digging. But the teacher has an especial handicap. He is obliged to spend much of his time trying to impart a little knowledge to young people who, if their own wishes were freely consulted, would much rather be doing something else. American youth is doubtless eager to learn, but it does not like the means by which learning is acquired. It detests discipline, but discipline it gets. What teacher does not know the feeling that the youngsters who face him are sitting there, stony of face and stonier of heart, silently defying him to arouse their interest?

It is natural, in such case, for the teacher to conclude finally that these empty vessels in front of him are simply unresponsive receptacles into which he must cram as many facts as possible—by brute force, if necessary—and whether these facts are understood and digested matters not; cram them in, conduct periodic tests to see whether they have at least been retained for a given length of time, and let it go at that. If, in the end, the subject under discussion is walled off for the rest of the student’s life in a deep crypt to which neither memory nor comprehension ever returns, that is just too bad. At least the facts were once rammed home.

This, to be sure, is a bad way to teach history or anything else. It does happen this way, here and there, for history teachers are not bloodless and at times they react to their environment as normal human beings react. But it does not happen as often as the critics say it does; for history teachers have discovered that the student who is invited to prowl around on his own hook in the corridors of history—even the student at the grade or high school level—usually responds with genuine interest. He still deals with facts, to be sure, and many of them are not facts which ordinarily would arouse his enthusiasm; but when he is invited to dig them up for himself, and is shown how the mere process of digging puts him in touch with the dreams and hopes and struggles of people of the past, he usually comes to see that the study of history is not so much a discipline as a fascinating adventure.

When this happens, one more person reaches the point at which he gains a better understanding of himself, his country, and the infinite mystery of human society. In other words, he begins to learn something about history.

Two recent developments lead to this bit of cerebration. One development was entirely accidental and unexpected.

There came recently to the editors of this magazine a letter from a lad named Christopher Brown who is in his last year at Haverford, a preparatory school near Philadelphia. Brown enclosed a list of questions ( see page 96 ) which, as a student in a course in American history, he was called on to answer; he was stumped by some of them, and could the editors of this magazine on history shed any light across his path?

The questions seemed vicious and stuffy. They called for answers which a good many professional historians could not give without going first to their reference books—the identification of obscure personalities and events, the explanation of excessively minor developments in the American story, the recitation of unimportant bits of information which even a welleducated man could hardly be expected to carry in his mind. If students at the high school level were being expected to memorize the data which would enable them to answer such questions, then it seemed clear that something was radically wrong with the teaching of history. So we wrote to Brown and asked him, in substance: What is this all about?