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Reading and teaching history todaya new sense of cultural context


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#16 Alexandra

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 06:54 AM

Jacki, when I was in high school I dreamed of going to St. John's -- I always liked starting at the beginning of things :unsure: But when I was in graduate school, one of my classmates came from that program -- very intelligent woman, but she'd never thought that anything happened AFTER the books she read (Willilam Harvey's theories of circulation were current science, etc.) They weren't allowed to research, she said. They were encouraged to do "original thinking" without benefit of research. So although I still love the idea (that students read classical texts in the original, and that that is the foundation of the curriculum) those professors need to give a context, too.

This has been an interesting discussion, though, and I hope it continues. Treefrog, I remember reading about that blue eyes/brown eyes study when it was done. (Some parents weren't thrilled, as I remember it.) I think that is a good example of how you can use experiential learning to the good. But if that's ALL one learns about race relations or the Holocaust (not that you were suggesting that), then even though the lesson is a strong one, I think it's not the complete one.

The cliche that's been buzzing around my head since this discussion began was, "Man learns from history that he never learns from history." Maybe this is why. We're taught to make superficial comparisons never getting to the root of WHY and HOW things happened. Just that they did, and they were very, very bad and we must never, never do them again. (I actually was taught the roots of the Holocaust and slavery, in an excellent public high school. We had small classes -- 15 was a large class -- and it was all discussion and reading.)

#17 carbro

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 12:49 PM

Two thoughts here:

1. It makes a difference whether or not you live in a culture that reveres its past. Americans are more future-oriented, not entirely a bad thing, but we've only just recently learned to value the "obsolete." Wrecking McKim, Meade & White's masterpiece, the original Penn Station, was a very costly lesson. It is striking to visit Europe and see 500-year-old structures remaining part of everyday living, as they'd been since they were built. When you're surrounded by the past, you're at least vaguely aware that there was a past. Here, the past is 1970. :shrug:

2. My sister attended Colorado College, which teaches by a total immersion method -- one course only for three weeks at a time. I told her that I couldn't imagine learning some things successfully that way, particularly literature and history, but that it would probably be great for lab sciences. She liked it very much for all subjects, and most people:gossip: seem to consider her highly educated and very intelligent -- and quite funny. :D :bouncing: :lol:

#18 vagansmom

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 06:48 PM

Well, I haven't left for the conference yet. It's in NY :mondieu: so everything's on hold until power is resumed. Our little pocket of CT has electricity - quite a shock because we're usually the first to lose it and the last to get it restored.

Alexandra, I'm not sure what you mean by

those professors need to give a context, too.

I thought, from my albeit casual association with the school, they do that quite nicely. I was living with my husband while he was a student there in the 1970's and I audited many of his courses and read many of the books. It's true that they don't do scientific research beyond the scope of the original experiments of whatever they are studying. They are tied to the original body of knowledge and therefore their papers are scholarly rather than research oriented. St. John's never claims to do more than that because they believe that's the job of the advanced degree.

The school isn't meant to provide a specialty, hence the lack of a major. Historically many students go on to prestigious graduate schools and many end up as doctors, lawyers, and all the other usual money-making professions. :yes: Many become writers or professors or scientists.

If the school and student do their jobs correctly in their partnership, the student will graduate from St. John's with the broadest knowledge of our current civilization and with a desire to continue studying. There were, however, a small group of students who held to really rigid, fixed versions of the Johnnie program and would probably not make the best ambassadors for the school. :shrug:

Most people who meet my husband say that he's the most well-read on the greatest variety of topics. He's often been called a "Renaissance Man." His knowledge didn't remain static following graduation. He has the background to understand the texture of whatever he reads and so he continues, out of the craving to learn, to build on what St. John's started in his education.

That's what education SHOULD do.

Jacki

#19 Alexandra

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 07:25 PM

Jacki, I'm not attacking the school. I meant that anecdote about one student to illustrate the broader point about education providing context. It may be a wonderful school but it produced at least one graduate who, at graduate level, had never produced a research paper and who had not read much beyond those clalssics -- her own fault, yes, but she seemed surprised to know that Harvey's theory wasn't still au courant, and in that case, the professor did not seem to have put the work in context.

But the point I was making is that whether we study the past or the playground, teachers should bring a context into the discussion.

#20 vagansmom

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 08:31 PM

Well, it certainly seems as if there's an important place for both the experiential and the scholarly. A study isn't complete without both. Major Mel's description of the high school Civil War program is an example of a fine experiential activity for teens. But of course they're also reading the history, discussing and debating the important events leading up to the War, and hopefully reading books written by people living through those times.

People learn best by doing, and that's where the value of experiential learning comes into play. That muscular memory is a powerful educator. But sometimes the activities chosen are just plain silly and I think that's what the author was describing. In a way, it may be unfair to damn such experiential learning simply because the activities thought up by an educator aren't good ones. Sometimes it's easy to come up with activities that bring home the feeling of the history being studied but other times it's next to impossible. The author's mention of war is a good one. There's no way we can create an experiential activity that can bring home all that horror.

I like the idea of integrating the subjects so that what's being learned in science and math and English reflect the period of time being studied in history. One of the biggest problems in education is that such learning, if it occurs at all, is sporadic. Schools try out programs for a year or two and then toss them when they don't instantly work. So rather than blaming the kids for their short attention spans or need to be instantly fulfilled or entertained, we should look to the really poor modeling done by the educators: What? Test scores didn't increase by 20% even though we instituted a new reading program this year? It's not working, throw it out!

Our educators, like our society, are unwilling to allow time for thoughts, ideas, concepts, to take root and develop. We like to blame the kids but I think they're only reflecting what they see in the adults around them.

I've had the good fortune of working in an elementary Montessori school with a master plan that extends from preschool on up through 8th grade. Our kids learn from a very early age how to discuss a topic, do the research, and especially how to understand the sensibilities of the times being studied. In high school, our graduates are known for their ability to dissect a subject and study it from all angles. I credit the Montessori school with providing an integrated framework for such study.

Each year, my fourth graders read a book about Harriet Tubman. They are asked to compare Harriet, her husband John (a pretty despicable guy) and a certain slave owner. They must come up with adjectives to describe each of these characters. We use a Venn diagram for the comparison. The kids have to take turns putting adjective labels into the diagram. I've been doing this activity with groups for 4 years and the results are always the same. The kids discover that Harriet Tubman and the slave owner have many similar qualities. They come away from this session realizing that the slave owner was, within his culture, a good man. There's much lively discussion about this when it's first realized. Some kids don't want to admit it. But ultimately the evidence before them convinces them. It's a powerful lesson.

This reminds me of the sorts of problems many adult friends of mine have about classical ballets like Giselle. They judge the ballet from the context and flavor of present times (particularly feminism) and then they blame it for not being relevant!

Maybe I ought to pull out that Venn diagram and get a comparison going.

#21 BattementCloche

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 01:27 PM

Well, I'm not sure if I qualify to intrude upon this engrossing discussion between you adults and teachers, but being a 14-year-old, I can certainly relate to what you're all talking about; after all, I am right in the middle of the two age groups you are talking of. However, I left school in grade 5, at the age of ten, and started homeschooling; so I can’t relate to what is actually being done in the schools (which, now I think on it, kind of defeats the purpose! :rolleyes: )

I’ve heard horror stories from my parents about the horrible history lessons they had to endure (a new take on the old 5-miles-to-school-each-day-uphill-both-ways-through-snow-up-to-their-waist story :D ), and having to memorize names and dates, all of which they promptly forgot after the exam/test. I, luckily, never had to go through that. In fact, I don’t even remember my history lessons in school.

The curriculum that I use is very loosely based on a curriculum created by homeschooling “guru’’ Charlotte Mason (CM), inconceivably called The Charlotte Mason Method :D . My mother still leaves room to wriggle, so to speak; I don’t always use the books CM recommended. Most of my friends (whom I communicate with through e-mail and private online chats organized by homeschooling groups) use the CM method. We do history extensively; every subject (excluding math and languages) we do is related somehow to it. For literature, we read poems and important works written during that time frame. For instance, while doing Ancient Egyptian History I read a translated version of the Book of the Dead (the ka of the deceased shall enter the hall of two truths, wherein he shall face great Osiris, Lord of Forever, and his heart shall be weighed against the Feather of Truth…), and Tales of Ancient Egypt, a book which comprises of short tales commonly told among the Egyptians, including the first ever recorded Cinderella story; The Girl and the Rose Slipper. For science, I read Science in Ancient Egypt, an engrossing book about the Egyptian’s methods of curing diseases, how they irrigated their fields, etc…

This way, not only are those who use the CM method being constantly exposed to the facts about the history of the time, but by reading literature written during the time period, we get an insight to how they regarded things. For instance, during the Middle Ages, anti-Semitism was regarded as a matter of course. In order to accept the rampant anti-Semitic mindsets of the time, you really need to put yourself in the time that this literature was written. You need to think like the people you’re reading about. Essentially, you need to be the people you’re reading about. If the author lived in the time period he wrote about, you need to think like the author (i.e. Shakespeare’s unforgiving and unsympathetic Shylock, or later, Dickens’ Fagin). As soon as you put yourself in their shoes, as soon as you see things the way they saw them, think the way they thought, regard people the way they regarded them, everything becomes so clear and obvious, you’re no longer left in the dark thinking How could they do that? or How could they think that?

~*~Rosalind

“The author and the reader are like husband and wife. If they have completely opposing views on subjects, there is only an extremely slim chance of them getting along.”

#22 Juliette

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 01:54 PM

As I am new on this site, I only discover this topic today and I have to say that I find it really, really interesting!
Indeed I'm a French student and I study History in Sorbonne University in Paris (as it's my 4th year, I am specialized and in Medieval History); besides I will probably become an History teacher and therefore I feel very concerned by the problem of teaching History and above all making children and students love it.
The main interesting thing to see is that, although History is not taught at all the same way here (if somebody is interested, I could try to explain), the problem is the same: children don't like History and don't care at all about the past.
Thus, thanks for all your posts!

#23 Mel Johnson

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 06:22 PM

Juliette, please go on to explain the French method of teaching history! As a professional, I'm very interested.

#24 Alexandra

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 06:54 PM

Yes, please, Juliette!

And Rosalind, thank you for your "intrusion" It is most welcome. If you've gotten to the point that you can write: "As soon as you put yourself in their shoes, as soon as you see things the way they saw them, think the way they thought, regard people the way they regarded them, everything becomes so clear and obvious, youíre no longer left in the dark thinking How could they do that? or How could they think that?" -- at 14! -- then I think you're getting a good education.

I don't know how to get around the memorizing facts problem. History should be more than that, of course, but on constantly reads scare stories about college kids who don't know what century the French or Russian revolutions took place in, and have no concept of when "ancient Egypt" was, that there have to be dates in there somewhere, or you're in freefall. But I like the linking literature and social history with history; anything that makes it alive. (I've been interested in the past since I could remember, so I've never understood why history is boring!)

#25 GWTW

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Posted 17 March 2004 - 06:18 AM

I think that you can get around the 'memorizing facts problem' by making the subject intersting. Once students are engrossed in the subject, they wouldn't mind spending time in memorizing facts - they would want to have that knowledge at their disposal. This comes up a lot in Israel, both in History and in Bible Studies (both compulsory for matriculation). But then, BAers are strange - I like to know that I can recite David's lament for Jonathon 2 decades after I studied it.

#26 dido

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Posted 17 March 2004 - 10:58 AM

One of my favorite history professors say, "History IS dates," by which he means that to know why something happenend you have to know when it happened, what came when. This is Ancient Greek history, and not knowing when the Peace of Callias happened is very frustrating; were there 1 or 2 peaces, how did that affect Persian-Athenian relations (and therefore Athenian-Spartan relations)?

I think too often dates are presented as this dull, uncontrovertable list that must simply be memorized "because." If that's true, then there really is no point in knowing dates, because you could just look them up. But because dates are attatched to events that have antecedents and consequences, the dates are important in themselves. (The Romans knew this: when they made up dates they made them darn significant: the founding of the Republic traditionally happens in 510 B.C., cooincidently the same year that the Pisistratid tyrants were expelled from Athens. Hmmm.)

This is a great topic ( can't believe I missed it, thanks for bringing it back up Juliette). I too fall on the side of "interesting for it's own sake" rather than "interesting because I can apply it to my life." I wonder though how that can be communicated. I love Battement Cloche's plan; hard to implement in a semester long course though...

#27 carbro

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Posted 17 March 2004 - 11:09 AM

I also love history because it's interesting and because it's relevant.

Also, it is so much richer when we can learn it the way Battement Cloche is -- tasting it along the way.

Even in our field of interest, isn't it more important to know that La Sylphide predated Giselle, which predated Swan Lake, which predated Sleeping Beauty, blah, blah, blah? Knowing specific dates is helpful, but on a more generalized level, not imperative.

#28 Juliette

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Posted 17 March 2004 - 01:12 PM

Then I will try to explain.
First in France everybody is learning the same program (one by level), wherever we are living or whatever school we are going to; and the method is almost always the same; it is decided by the government. You cannot choose what History you want to study until your 3rd year in University (if you study History in University).
- Children under 11 are studying during 5 years everything from the "Prehistory" to nowadays (ancient civilizations and then mainly in France and Europe), with illustrated papers, which tell them about the main events and the main characters.
- Then, in the French equivalent of Junior High School, they are studying the same thing, but with more details (prehistory and ancient civilizations the first year, medieval erea the second year, 16th until 19th century the third year and 20th century the fourth one). The method is different: teachers give the main elements to the children and besides make them study documents: literary texts, history texts, pictures....Each time is related to Art and Literary History.
-Then in High School we mainly study 19th and 20th centuries, except the first year where we study one more time the main events of History (birth of democraty in Greece, "Renaissance", French Revolution, Romanticism...). The other two years we study in details 19th and above all 20th centuries and the method is once again a little different: more attention paid to documents and new exercices: "dissertation" (long writitngs)...
We don't study only french History but world History (only main events in the other countries).
And there is also a new fashion which is, like in your countries, to study the past regarding the present (what could the past teach us?)

I realize that I use a lot of words without knowing their English translations and therefore will try tomorrow to be more precise

#29 Estelle

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Posted 17 March 2004 - 02:09 PM

BattementCloche, thanks for reviving that thread, I had missed it last August... :)

Juliette, it's interesting to see that the French history schedules have changed a little bit since I was in high school (1988-1991), mostly for the first year of high school ("seconde"-
if I remember correctly, when I was there it was mostly about the 18th and 19th century).

By the way, in France in junior high school and high school, history is taught by the
same teachers as geography- I wonder if it's the same in other countries?

#30 BattementCloche

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Posted 17 March 2004 - 02:23 PM

Wow! This thread certainly has snowballed since I was on last.

Juliette, thank-you for the explanation of the French system of teaching History; I've been considering going to a University somewhere in Europe, France being on the top of the list. :)

I agree with Alexandra in that Iíve never found history boring. I think itís the same with many kids, but their interest was stifled by the way history is presented to them, as dates and names that need to be memorized for tests, and then forgotten. Also, anything related to 'school' (the evil word!) seems to have a negative impact on kids, so in order to capture their attention and to keep it, you have to really be creative in how you present the whole idea of 'history'.


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