Why History Is More Important to Teach Than We Think

History should not be taught as an academic subject.

Too bold? Let me explain.

Why History Is More Important to Teach Than We Think

History: How do you teach this thing?

So… history is an interesting subject to tackle. Why? Because it’s just not as definable as other school subjects.

Think about it. Math is solid and structured. 2+2 always equals 4. It doesn’t change.

English, in spite of the ridiculous amount of “rule-breaking” that is rampant throughout the learning process, is still a set of grammar rules that gives you structure, right and wrong answers, etc.

Science is loaded with formulas and laws, too, and even things like Phys-ed have clearly defined objectives like staying healthy.

But history? Hmmm… give me a second.

Seriously, the “goal” of history can feel as difficult to pin down as all get out! It can’t be just memorizing everything. That seems pointless (even if it’s what we teachers tend to resort to ALL of the time to quantify success or failure!)

The truth is, the value of history is found in much deeper and more nuanced areas than pass or fail grading and tests, memorization of names and dates, or any other “measurable” factors involved.

If we can get over the need to focus on the nitty-gritty details and get into a little bit more of a big-picture mindset, it’s there that we can begin to truly see where the value of history shines through, and man, oh man, what a value that is!

What History can teach us

In my humble opinion, the true value of history can be found when it is put into the company of subjects like faith and philosophy rather than grammar and arithmetic. It is here, in these “higher minded” regions that history thrives and begins to take on a more important value than we ever could find in a dusty old textbook that we’re being made to read and memorize in order to pass a test.

Here are a few of the most important things that can be gleaned from our history studies, as far as I have discovered over the years.

Independent thinking and biases

The information contained in history can be very fluid, change from source to source and often resemble anything but certainty. It’s enough to make the most lenient scientist or mathematician cringe.

That’s because with history we’re dealing in the medium of storytelling.

The plain truth of the matter is that when it comes to history, 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4. The stories aren’t always “set in stone” so to speak. In fact, just the opposite. History is made up of a huge catalog of recorded versions of events that happened in the past. Sometimes these are as factual and direct as possible, while at other times they are as lopsided and opinionated as fairy tales.

Thus, rather than teach history as facts to be absorbed and regurgitated, it is crucial that we teach our students to become history detectives instead.

We should encourage them to think critically and independently about each story they hear, taking into account alternatives versions and considering how biases affect a narrative, before weighing all of this together in order to try to find a happy middle ground (which is most often the closest to the truth.)

For example, if you’re studying the Middle Ages, try to find resources that cover what it was like to be a King and a serf. Read the Hundred Years War from the English and the French perspectives, consider the Crusades from a passionate, God-fearing crusader’s viewpoint as well as from the view of a victim in a town plundered by the Christian armies in the Holy Land. Teach your children to be critical, and to weigh biases and viewpoints before taking a stance on how they feel about a story.

Be humble, young padawan.

If we’re honest with ourselves, when it comes to history we really know hardly anything.

In his essay titled Historicism, C.S. Lewis claims, “I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text? …The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission ‘Of course we don’t know everything’ that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

I don’t know how much clearer I can make it. When it comes to quantity, we know next to nothing, historically speaking.

When we put what we know about history into perspective, it puts us in our place and helps us stay humble.

The moral lessons

History is a beautiful thing. It’s loaded with moral and ethical lessons that allow us to vicariously experience life through all those that lived it before us. We can learn about right and wrong, consequences of actions, and how the world works!

But while teaching history in this way is a crucial part of getting the most out of the subject, we can’t slip into treating history like it’s just a branch of philosophy either. It’s not hypothetical. History is the real deal, where the rubber of morals and ethics hits the road of reality.

Gone are the cutesy bedtime stories where the hero did the right thing and was rewarded for it.

On the contrary, in a very Ecclesiastical style, history can be unbalanced, ungenerous, and just plain unfair both for and against us. Hmmm… what else is that like? Oh, yeah, life!

History is a staging point for young learners to see the morals they learned in their Sunday school classes on full display. But do you know what? Sometimes when a person does the right thing, they become a martyr, and, on the other hand, when a villain, Hitler during WWII for example, takes what he wants, he might become a dictator.

Is it fair? No.

Does it always make sense? No.

But that’s reality sometimes, and history is the first portal through which our students can begin to come to grips with the intensely unfair, harsh reality that is real life.

Now, please don’t get depressed by this! This really is good news! Because when students can observe the difficulties and even the cruelties of life without having to go through them personally, they can begin to process all of it with you by their side.

So, how do we teach history then?

There are a few important points that can be a tremendous help in getting things on the right track.

For one, ditch the tests. You’re the teacher, you can judge whether the students have learned enough to pass or fail. Grade them Socratically. Discuss what you’re learning. Don’t measure their success based on memorization and other useless information. We all have smartphones at this point, for goodness sake. If they don’t have something memorized, they can look it up in seconds! Make sure they’re learning the deeper lessons instead.

Next up, don’t snuff out their interest with boring textbooks. History is a story. It shouldn’t be boring, but it far too often is. Instead, use something like a timeline to keep track of the information and then dive elbow deep into more of a hands-on approach to the whole subject. Get the kids to fall in love with history and the rest will largely take care of itself.

Finally, as the teacher, keep your own perspective in a healthy place. Don’t use history as an elective or a credit to fill up a quota. Treat it with respect and odds are the attitude will start to rub off on your students.

History, the unsung hero of education

And there you have it. It may not be as shiny and perfectly thought out as most other academic subjects, but history is just about as important as it gets when it comes to critical life lessons that should be taught in our classrooms.

It really shouldn’t even be an academic subject in the normal sense of the term. But since it is, we need to give it a serious face lift from its current status as the “dog house of school subjects,” instead, raising it to the elite status that it deserves.

Jaron Pak

About the author

Jaron is head researcher at Home School in the Woods.

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  1. I understand what you’re saying about not grading tests and such, but there are ways to ask higher order questions on tests that can be quantifiably graded and should be. I agree that they should not be graded on memorization of information, but if you create effective questions, students can show both their knowledge of basic details and higher order thinking skills.

    Additionally, textbooks do have a time and place in a history classroom. Namely, I use them as a source of background information before diving into a project, simulation, etc. Students do need some place to turn to for basic details of an event (the who, what, where, when, and why of it all) before they can put it all together or argue a conclusion.

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