Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Making History Interesting and the Role of Cultural Institutions

According to the History News Network on a web page titled Teaching Kids Who Find History Boring, "Surveys routinely rank history at the bottom of students' favorite subjects." This is troubling. Cultural illiteracy threatens our civilized memory. Decisions about the progression of society -- governments we want in power, for what purpose we want to use our money, what scientific innovations we want to support, etc. -- should come in large part from a basic understanding of man's past. Without a familiarity with the laws, momentous events, and formulative decisions of a people, one cannot continue to move society ahead in an informed way. Study of the past gives us an overall perspective, a general understanding of how and why things happen, empathy, and moral intelligence.

To initiate a conversation with people about history, it is important for cultural heritage professionals to directly relate the idea that everything has a history. No matter what your interest, there is a history to it. So, if we start with the premise that there is at least some history for everyone, we immediately can make history more relevant to our audience. Are you a science person instead of a liberal arts person? Well, science has a history. Read about Madame Curie or visit an exhibit about the invention of the telescope. Do you consider yourself a theater type person? Read about stage direction in Shakespeare's time or the evolution of the film industry.

Though cultural heritage professionals generally focus on how their individual institutions present history through collections,programs and exhibits, we must also work to improve the study of history in schools. Children cannot just pick any subject they think they like as suggested above and avoid a curriculum. Students must read about the Roman Empire or the Crusades, and Ancient Egypt. But people are people no matter the time or place. The problem with the study of history in many schools, I think, is an emphasis on dates and names instead of a shared humanity. Teachers should encourage students to put themselves in another person's shoes. What if you were a child on a ship that was crossing the Atlantic to move to the New World; would you have been able to bring your favorite doll? Would you have even owned a favorite doll? What food would you have eaten? How would you go to the bathroom? These are the types of questions that awaken young children's creativity and imagination. One can allow older students to explore the topics that interest them in relation to the assignment. What sports did members of a certain culture play? How did they cook their food? What types of clothes did they wear?

One suggestion on the History Network page is to teach children backwards. Start history with the student and relate past events to the culture mankind has created today. The writer says that this seems "counterintuitive", but it makes perfect sense to me. Everyone wants to understand how they fit in. When I attend a party and ask someone how many kids he has or what she does for a living, I expect the person with whom I am speaking to ask about me. We talk back and forth figuring out where we fit into the other person's story, to see if we are compatible. Everyone wants to talk about oneself. The study of history is like a party conversation. We want to see our relationship with the rest of the crowd. It all relates back to us.

Telling history backwards also gives us permission to put a modern perspective on events, while encouraging us to gain a better understand of how our ancestors thought. If we start with 2,000 year old history, it may seem out of touch and confusing. If we start now and work backwards, we can better decipher how we got where we are today. The people and events from the past that influence us today are given an historical thread that ties them directly to the present when we study backwards. It makes past civilizations more like us and more attune with our own reality.

On HNN, an author suggested making history more "narrative." The value of an enthusiastic, well-educated teacher was emphasized. "
History is a story, thus it is essential that the history teacher be a good story-teller." Cultural heritage institutions have a great role to play in this narrative and can make themselves useful to teachers. Use of archives and artifacts can make a story come alive. Placing an object held by a person who lived many years ago can be powerful. Touching an old photo, or a diary written by a young person from a different time has the power to transport us. Walking in a place where many walked before can open our eyes to the historical narrative, giving us a part in the human story. Original resources play a different role than textual narrative. The immediacy of an old item moves beyond storytelling to give us a direct connection to our past. Reading about the American Civil War is different than holding the letters a dying soldier wrote home to his mother. The remarkableness of historical circumstances can be hammered home by incorporating primary materials into the study of history.

Archives and artifacts boost the narrative by imbuing it with stark realism. Many teachers of history seem not to put much stock in this. Others find that the necessary resources are not easily accessible within the classroom. Cultural heritage professionals are the gatekeepers to the resources, we must collaborate with our teachers to encourage an understanding of the role collection items can play and to make our materials available to students. Projects such as American Memory aim to make original resources more accessible, but local organizations have a role to play as well, to bring original items into the classroom and not just computerized images of them.

The challenges of teaching history well and overcoming cultural illiteracy are vast. It is time for cultural heritage professionals to re-examine their role related to this issue and to pursue greater collaborative efforts to make history interesting to the general populace.

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