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Reading and teaching history todaya new sense of cultural context


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 07 August 2003 - 06:32 AM

This is from www.spiked-online.com, a U.K. site that deals with cultural and political issues. Lots of interesting articles here -- I'm going to put up two today.

The first deals with history, and the problems of teaching it at university level. Not only are children not reading history, and expecting history to be taught the way it is on television, but the sugar on the medicine is currently "make it relevant to today." The article explores those problems.

Stuck in the present

No doubt these influences [Tv, etc] are important - but there is something else going on here, too, in terms of the way our society views the past. It is increasingly demanded that history be made 'relevant' to today, and seen as a kind of extension of everyday experience. This is perhaps why students see the strangeness of the nineteenth century as 'unappetising', rather than as a challenge.


When we talk about far-off times, they are often seen in the comfortable and familiar terms of the present. So everything from the Crusades to the English Civil War is discussed in terms of modern notions, such as prejudice or genocide. The UK government's Holocaust Memorial Day attempts to discuss the Holocaust in the light of everyday experiences of bullying and bigotry. The teachers' pack for children suggests a number of different suggested 'reflections', or themes for assemblies - including 'being different', 'being in a foreign country without a family' and 'individual responsibility' (3).


The specific context that led to the horror of the Holocaust is ignored. Students are encouraged to talk, not about Europe in the 1930s and 40s, but the way that they relate to each other in the playground. The Holocaust Memorial Day Working Group said that: 'We are all individually responsible to ensure that we are active citizens and do not stand by while others are being victimised or persecuted.' It would be of little surprise if kids saw the Holocaust as something like calling people names (but worse), and Hitler as something like a bad guy on a film (but worse).


Is this a trend, or a pendulum swing (meaning it wil be back, or mutate into another form)? Obviously, I don't mean to discuss the Holocaust except as an example; I'd like to get at the larger cultural/educational question, for those interested.

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 08 August 2003 - 02:40 AM

Presentism in teaching history has always been with us, no matter what the culture. Lord Elgin (you remember him - the guy who nabbed the frieze from the Parthenon) maintained that history always should teach a moral lesson. Ironically, Elgin himself is denounced by Presentists for theft of another nation's national treasure. Other writers felt that any historical recounting of events had to be viewed in the light of the prevailing moral and ethical codes of the time and place in which the events happened. Lord Macaulay was one in this camp. It is fair to point out that during the twelfth century, it was perfectly good form for an army to overrun a town and kill everyone in it. Modern military doctrine runs contrary to this type of operation with only a few specific circumstances calling for it. Things run in cycles. Right now, Presentism seems to be enjoying a Politically Correct high, but it looks like the next rebellious generation of historians coming up seems to favor highly the idea of the "culture optic" - seeing history and historical events in the light of the ways of the times in which they happened. Some things run constant. It is unlikely that anyone in any time or place would do something intentionally to cause themselves physical pain or discomfort. However, the thought processes that were used to arrive at any decision are likely to have been rather divergent from modern ones, and understanding those processes is one of the most important things a historian can accomplish.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 08 August 2003 - 07:32 AM

But there is a consistent contemporary worldview of "It's all about me" and that affects the arts. If I don't dance or don't have a child who dances, I'm not going to read about/go see dance.

I was brought up to be interested in everything. Anecdote: I have a clear memory when I was very young of being taken to an open house at the opera singer, Rosa Ponselle. (This was the 1950s, when American families Did Cultural Things Together on Sundays.) I asked if we knew her; I didn't know why we would go to some strange woman's house. They explained to me that no, we don't know her personally, but she's an important person who lives in Baltimore, and therefore part of our world, and we should be interested in her even if we hate opera, which they did.

I thought the bullies on the playground analogy to the Holocaust in the article cited was a chilling one -- it limits the imagination so. If you are trained to view the world through your own eyes, it's a very, very narrow world.

#4 Hans

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Posted 08 August 2003 - 09:06 PM

If only more parents thought the way yours did, Alexandra :)

I imagine that it would be more helpful to try to view history from the eyes of those involved--I would think that would make it "come alive" more than trying to relate it to the present day.

For what it's worth, I would tend to equate the Holocaust more with slavery (though clearly not a modern-day practice/idea, and not really an exact match) than playground bullying. I also find it rather shocking that people would feel the need to "make it relevant to today" when it only happened 60 years ago! It's incredible and horrifying how recent it is.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 08 August 2003 - 09:14 PM

I'm afraid I don't see a link between slavery and the Holocaust except they're both bad. They're very different. But I do agree that it might be better to try to make students understand how the people were affected -- whether slaves or Holocaust victims, or kings, knights, soldiers, repressed peasants, whatever -- than trying to tell them that slavery was like having to clean up your room every day or being put in a concentration camp was like being bullied in the schoolyard.

Children have such magnificent imaginations, they don't need much encouragement, and it would seem better to have them use those imaginations to look OUTWARD instead of looking INWARD.

Any teachers here? What are you seeing in schools as far as teaching methods, reading habits, expectations of students, etc? (Others' comments welcome too, of course.)

#6 Hans

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Posted 08 August 2003 - 09:24 PM

I'm afraid I don't see a link between slavery and the Holocaust except they're both bad. They're very different.


They are, but I was thinking of the forced manual labor involved, as well as the racism and dehumanizing factors such as cruel treatment and inadequate (to put it mildly) living conditions.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 08 August 2003 - 09:49 PM

Yes, I see your point, but if I were teaching, I'd NOT link them because the times, the causes, so many other things were different. Even within slavery, the difference between slavery in ancient Egypt, Rome, and the Colonial Americas are different. I think that's part of what he's getting at in the article, too, that education today too often encourages students to look at the things they can relate to rather than having them probe and find out what's going on beneath the surface.

Why the article struck me was because I saw the things he talks about with my own students, but I also think it has to do with audiences' reactions to performances. We have to be able to relate to everything -- "audiences want to see themselves on the stage," etc. I read the article that way -- his "Stuck in the Present" is also that we're "stuck within ourselves."

#8 floss

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Posted 09 August 2003 - 01:30 AM

Presentism seems to be in favour at Australian high schools. My teenagers are very interested in History and why people behaved in certain ways at different times , however, they are not encouraged to understand the morals and models of thought at that time. Students here are taught to relate to history from a 21st Century perspective which I believe does restrict their understanding of the period being studied. Eldest DD recently completed the Aboriginal Studies component of the history strand that all Australian students must complete. Part of her studies included "The Stolen Generation" which was a time in Australia when many Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed with foster families or adopted by (usually) "white" families. This was done because at that time (and this was still ocurring up until 20-30 years ago) authorities believed that the children would be better off being taken away from their families. Much of DD lessons on this time were in the format of "how would you feel?". Although this is an important way of developing empathy, I felt there was was too much emphasis on the "me" and not enough on how the people involved would feel or just as importantly, why government child welfare authorities believed this was appropriate. As well, there was no investigation of society's views and beliefs on this subject. I think students need to examine the context of any historical event not just relate it to their own life.

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 09 August 2003 - 02:30 AM

I think that there is a prejudice against the present-day student that assumes that one never really leaves the stage from pre-school to about age 6 that wants to know "how does this relate to ME?" It's a great time for museums to use "touch me" exhibits, or "discovery boxes" which invites and incites interaction of the customer with artifacts. The bad thing is, while they allow that this developmental stage is common to practically all students, it doesn't serve the more sophisticated student of, say, early teenage years, who has usually gone through a couple more developmental changes and can detect and resent condescension at a hundred meters. By senior high school, you'd better be relating to students as adults, or you lose them.

Having worked as an adjunct mentor to a high school living history program based on the era of the American Civil War for the last twenty years, I've seen the change in students who not only have to talk the talk, but actually walk the walk. Granted, the people of the mid-nineteenth century are rather more accessible than those of the eighteenth or earlier, but still the process opens a lot of eyes into what real life was like, what was negative about it, what was surprising about it, and what to "celebrate" about its remnants in modern activities and attitudes. Just discovering a mindset informed by reaction to "Jim Crow" laws, for example, is only a small part of that "celebration".

#10 Guest_lindendale_*

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Posted 09 August 2003 - 02:50 AM

The quotation and subsequent discussion have been fascinating. One problem with translating everything into the present is that it can give kids (and adults) a superficial sense of moral superiority: e.g. slavery was terrible, I understand that, I don't act in racist ways, and therefore that's all I need to know about, say, the American Civil War. Kids are very quick to spot racism, sexism, lack of diversity, anti-Semitism, all forms of intolerance. That's good, that's terrific, but they still need to know some historical facts (names, dates, that sort of thing, as well as analysis and opinions) about, say, the economics of the antebellum South or the failure of the Weimer republic. Their sense of moral superiority encouraged by "presentism" can sometimes get in the way of their learning these things.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 09 August 2003 - 07:14 AM

Many good points made here -- and thank you for the Austrailian view, floss. (I agree.)

I thought Mel made a good point, too, about not treating everyone like six-year-olds. The (few) 9 and 10 years olds I've known have been very open, eager to learn about new things, and eager to put themselves in OTHERS shoes, rather than making Other walk in theirs, if that makes sense. Part of understanding slavery -- or the Holocaust, or colonialism, or the Trial of Tears (a terrible incident in American history where Native Americans were forced to walk from their homes in Georgia to be resettled further west) -- to me, is trying to get at why and how the situation occurred, instead of just how terrible it was. And perhaps most important, to understand the mindset of the time. I remember one eye-opener for me in high school was reading that in the Middle Ages in Europe, many believed that females were incapable of reading -- because they had never been taught it, and, thus, never read. To me, it's not a slight difference; there was more to lack of female education than Evil Men refused to let their daughters read. (The attitude changed when some men without sons, but desperate to pass on their knowledge, decided to try, kind of like trying to teach a dog to speak in their minds, and voila :) )

I agree with linendale, too -- I hadn't thought of that. But it DOES breed moral superiority. "If I'd inherited slaves, the first thing I'd do when I hit 21 is to free them." Right. And you're in the mid-South. What do you do with the ex-slaves? Just say, "Good-bye, here's 10 bucks, you're free, have a nice life?" They wouldn't get ten miles without being captured and enslaved by someone else. To me, it's more important to encourage -- and help, guide, lead -- children to think things through instead of just having them check off the "right" answer to a moral question.

And if we do expand their imaginations in this way, they'll be able to look at ballet with more sophisticated eyes and minds, too :clapping:

#12 Treefrog

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Posted 09 August 2003 - 09:41 AM

The age difference that Mel brought up is terribly important, and it's muddled in the original article.

Up until about age 10-12, kids are not able to think abstractly. As a teacher of 10-year-olds, I've had to learn first-hand what that means, in practical terms. You'd be surprised at the things that you, as an adult, think are perfectly concrete that turn out to be wildly abstract and inaccessible to 10-year-olds.

I suspect that we think the events of history are perfectly concrete (they happened, after all). but to a child of this age they are abstract (you can't see them, touch them, feel them). So, teachers attempt to make them concrete by relating them to the child's own experiences.

That's the rationale, anyway. As in anything, there are good ways and bad ways to go about it. Personally, I agree that this kind of experiential education needs to be grounded in facts, first-person narratives, and the like. As part of learning about soil and erosion, my students learn about the Dust Bowl. I do focus on the personal experience, because that's what my students can understand. They read excerpts from a woman's diary, and watch an excellent video from the American Experience PBS series. There's much more we could do, but this is a brief excursion.

My least favorite part of the unit is the most experiential part: I ask them to develop skits about life in the Dust Bowl. Although I ask them to focus on a problem or issue, and to be as realistic as possible, I'm seldom happy with the result. The kids really don't have enough information to do either. Thus, the death rate in the skits is way out of proportion to reality (EVERY skit has one or more people dying suddenly from asphyxiation or dust pneumonia), and everything is just way too dramatic. Gee, as I write this, I'm already thinking of dropping the skits. :)

By high school, I'd hope that kids were focusing much more on what happened, and why it happened. I think there is room for discussions that relate the modern world to the historical one (is Saddam another Hitler? Why or why not? Why did the world feel justified in fighting Hitler, but few nations signed on to the US war in Iraq? Is the current war a good one, a just one? How are modern-day Iraq and 1930s Germany/Europe alike and different?), but by high school I hope teachers have moved beyond "Hitler was a bully. Do you know any bullies? How did you stand up to them? Bullying is wrong."

Finally ... some lessons can be learned very powerfully through personal experience. I am thinking of the midwestern teacher who, in the 1960s, wanted to teach her racially and culturally homogeneous third-grade class about persecution. In a now-famous lesson, she divided her class into "brown eyes" and "blue eyes", and on alternate days she actively persecuted one group, and encouraged the kids to do likewise. "No, you can't sit there; blue eyes have to sit at the back of the class." "Isn't that just like a blue-eyed kid to say something dumb like that!" And then, the next day, "Brown eyes have to wait for the blue eyes to get their milk first... Why? Blue eyes are just better." By the end of the week, every kid had had a turn in both roles (and it's distressing how quickly they descended into the persecutional role, and how despondent they became when theirs was the short end of the stick). Years later, each person recalled the experience vividly, and was able to relate the lesson to his or her adult life.

#13 carbro

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Posted 09 August 2003 - 03:45 PM

History really becomes exciting when we've absorbed enough of it to get a sense of the texture of the times. For example, realizing that Mozart and Haydn were composing while this country was coming into being and why that was -- what led up to those parallel events. That takes maturity and perspective, but certainly by high school, I think students should begin to accumulate this layering of knowledge.

The paradox here is that by relating everything to the here-and-now, we risk losing the perspective that allows us to experience our own time as part of the great tide of the human species. And that greater view is pretty exciting, too.

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 10 August 2003 - 03:20 AM

One of the most useful things about the high school Civil War program is that it isn't just a one-period gig. There are intracurricular parts of it, and there are extracurricular parts. Meetings often are after school, and events on weekends which allow an "immersion" in a culture. One of the most interesting exercises is to take an "occupations grab-bag" and put it into play. The kids are out on the field, and pick a civilian occupation that they are supposed to have followed outside the army. There are also civilian jobs spread through the choices, and sometimes the valedictorian types draw - "messboy", "laundress" and so on - jobs are not divided by race or sex. A thumbnail description of what the period person was appears. Example (messboy), sex: male, age: 22, ethnicity/nationality: African-American, education: equivalent to third grade, marital status: single, previous occupation: field laborer, and so on. And yes, the girls are "on line" as well, being equally eligible for soldier roles. The big thing they learn in many all-weekend events is to deal with the boredom! Drill, fatigue, drill, eat, fatigue, drill, eat, fatigue, lights out. The big battle reenactments are actually variety in the program, soldier life being what it was - only about 2% of the time was spent in combat conditions.

#15 vagansmom

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 06:26 AM

I love this discussion but as I'm hours away from leaving for a 3 day conference, I don't have time to do this justice.

I think the problem, at the university level, lies more in the specialization (concentration on one's major) within the undergraduate program than in the need for here-and-now coverage. That wasn't always so.

I'm a big proponent of a true classics education at the college level. Anyone familiar with St. John's College? (NOT the university - it's unrelated to the college). They're located in Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Students graduate with a general BA. It's the "Great Books" program whose concept was first created at the University of Chicago and then fully realized at St. John's.

They learn about the here-and-now by studying the past. All students in a given year study the same curriculum. Freshmen begin with the ancient Greeks. They study the language, the math, the science (they learn them as if they are new thoughts), the music, the philosophy. They read the great writers of that period. As they move up through time, they can really understand why, for instance, Galileo's idea was so revolutionary. The only way to understand that is to know what came before.

And then they move on up in history, culminating in the 20th century by the time they are seniors.

I don't think there's any way to form truly educated thoughts about the here-and-now without understanding what came before. There is nothing more relevant. We learn how our current culture came to exist, we learn the thoughts that guided it to its present state, etc. We learn, most importantly, that people are always grappling with the same basic spiritual and material needs. Again, nothing could be more relevant.

As long as the majority of people think that education is all about getting jobs, we'll always have people who find St. John's curriculum irrelevant and we'll always have people - not just we commoners but most glaringly our leaders - making important decisions out of ignorance.

Off my podium and on to my conference.

Jacki


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