Reading, Writing And History

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The answer shed additional light, which made everything look different. The questions were not part of an examination. Rather, they constituted a termpaper project; that is, they were given to the student and he was asked to spend the next few weeks finding the answers, specifying (in his term paper) where and how he had found them—and suddenly it became clear that the teacher of this particular class knew precisely what he was about. For there is an immense difference between expecting a student to store, in the upper attic of his mind, all of the useless lumber which would enable him to survive the cruel test of a radio quiz program, and the business of giving him the questions ahead of time and telling him to go and dig until he knew what the answers were. The first would simply put a premium on a retentive memory for unimportant facts; the second would compel him to look into various aspects of the national past and, in the process of finding the answers to specific questions, to absorb a real understanding of what made people tick and how the country got put together.

Young Brown’s letter also gave other evidence. Mr. Donald G. Brownlow, who handed out these 50 questions, was, said this student, “the best teacher in the school.” Why? “Because he makes the people in history seem alive and it is not as though we were studying about statues from a past age. We have learned that heroes are not always heroic but are human most of the time.”

A history teacher who can make his students feel that way is obviously doing his job expertly. The mere fact that the young gentlemen in question may not remember the specific answers for more than a month or two makes no great difference. They have had the experience of digging; and in their own way they have shared in the enormously exciting and rewarding task of the historian, and they have learned that history is not so much a matter of names and dates as of finding out why certain names and dates are memorable.

His parents, this student confessed, were appalled when they saw the list of questions and wanted to know the purpose of such an assignment. “I guess,” he wrote, “it’s to get everyone ‘all shook up.’”

It would be hard to find a better definition of the real reason for the study of history. To get everyone all shook up: isn’t that what we are actually looking for when we urge the importance of this particular discipline? History does not supply the answers to questions so much as it incites its students to go and look for the answers. The search is what is rewarding. The young man (or the adult too, for that matter) who gets all shook up while he is searching is reaping the real reward. When history is taught that way the current criticisms look pale.

The other development that set us musing about the aims and achievements of the study of history came in Oklahoma. In that energetic state, through the co-operation of practically everyone from Senator Robert Kerr down through state and city educators, chambers of commerce, and public-spirited citizens generally, there was recently held an historical essay contest, open to students in grade schools, in high schools, and in colleges and universities. The contest was held in connection with the state’s Golden Jubilee celebration, and A MERICAN H ERITAGE is happy to have had a part in sponsoring it.

The essence of it was that students in the three educational levels were invited to write essays on one aspect or another of their state’s brief but colorful history. These essays had to be based on research; each had to be accompanied by a statement of the sources consulted and the spadework performed. From the avalanche of essays submitted, nine prize winners were selected—three from the grade schools, three from the high schools, and three from the colleges. And the whole business seems to us to have been eminently worth doing.

What do you expect to get out of such a contest? Not deathless prose, surely; it takes time to learn to write flawlessly, most of us never do master the trick, and it is altogether too much to expect a teen-ager to express himself in the language of Parkman or Prescott. Nor do you need to expect historical research of the highest quality, along with a set of papers that will make permanent additions to the state’s archives. The object is much simpler, and in some ways much more important.

What you get is an awakened interest in their own past on the part of many thousands of young people. The youngsters who took part in this contest are better educated now than they were before, not because they have written papers of lasting value but simply because they have taken the trouble to look into the history of their own state, to find out for themselves what happened to whom, and how and why it happened; and because history has, for them, ceased to be a matter of memorizing facts by rote and has instead become an adventure in finding out about human beings. It would be hard to overstate the importance of a venture of this kind. It teaches history in the best possible way—by handing a little piece of it to the student and letting him go out and do his own digging.

It would be pleasant to be able to print all of the prize-winning essays in this magazine—not necessarily because of their literary or historical value, but just because they are samples of the way in which the interest of young people in their own social background can be aroused. To print all of them would take far too much space, of course; but to print one, as representative of the serious effort which young minds put into the whole venture, is a privilege.