Long-term Goals and Teaching History that Matters

I’ve talked before about the biggest problem I see in my field – that we don’t know what History is and so we don’t know how to teach it. I’ve been thinking recently about how this also hurts the image of History as a field – it just doesn’t seem welcoming, useful, or enjoyable to most people. The first thing most people say to me when I tell them I’m a historian is either Oh I hated history in school, there were too many facts to memorize! or I love history, I’m great at remembering stuff! Isn’t it a huge problem that the popular conception of this field – memorizing facts – actually has nothing to do with it?

Historians know there’s a problem with our field, that people largely misuse our research, or are working with materials that are 50 years out of date, but even then we don’t really address the fact that there is a general misconception about what our field even does or why it matters. I groan every time someone (especially one of my own students) quotes me a platitude about history, like “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it”. These phrases are so off the mark and so reductive at the same time. And yet historians as a group aren’t moving very quickly to make any real changes. Because of the pressure to publish and the obvious preference for academia, few of us write for a general audience, and the ones who find success are usually Americanists writing massive biographies (oh, hello, Hamilton). When historians do feel forced to engage with a general audience, the results are usually bland and boring – have you been to your local history museum lately? So, inspired by more holistic and radical methods of teaching, I’m thinking about how historians as teachers (whether literally in classrooms or more generally in the public eye) can direct our subject toward things people actually want to learn.

I think we can reconsider the way we teach history both in terms of what skills the study of history teaches and what narratives we pass along. I was really confronted with this recently when I took a trip to the San Mateo County History Museum in downtown Redwood City, California. The museum is the center of the city, a repurposed neo-classical courthouse with a huge plaza in front, and yet it’s clear that no one ever goes inside. Redwood City is in the midst of Silicon Valley, just 20 minutes north of the campuses of Google and Apple, and home to Oracle and Electronic Arts. And the museum has access to a treasure trove of historical objects, like old stagecoach cars, and archival records dating back to the early 1800s. And yet when you walk inside, it just feels dead. It has all the obligatory local history mainstays – the story of how the region was settled, with a little corner for the “natives”, a rosy telling of how the area contributed to the war effort (with a recognition of Japanese internment that still barely scratches the surface and still subtly supports the view that Americans are, by definition, white), and a “hall of entrepreneurs ” that reads like the Wikipedia page on Silicon Valley. The problem is that history in this place means things of the past (and also I assume this museum has no funding) – the point is to show up and learn a tidbit about what was, so that you can now point at the highway and say hey, did you know that El Camino Real means “the royal road” and was established by the Spanish? (which is what I said to my husband after we left). But what if the point was to come away asking questions instead of spouting facts? Like, how can Silicon Valley reconcile its goals to innovate and expand with the values of the local community, given that this is the first time that this area in between San Jose and San Francisco has itself been a center of business, rather than just a wealthy residential area? 

History, especially local history, is about asking why things are the way they are, and trying to frame how the present fits with the past as an exercise in self reflection. Doing this doesn’t just require critical thinking and a close reading of documents, which are the skills history departments tell prospective majors they can learn. It requires the skill I would call analyzing complex data – reading results from information that can’t be represented numerically. The end result of this analysis is the construction of a narrative – a story that explains how the data relate to one another and essentially weights the importance of certain points over others based on the focus of the analysis. Local history museums are typically trying to fit into the larger American narrative – British colonialism, religious freedom, innovation, expansion, and the American Dream. But this narrative doesn’t work for a lot of regions, especially because most of the country wasn’t actually colonized by the British, and a lot of modern local history and culture is a continuation of the people who were here before Europeans.

Local history, therefore, needs to both serve an even more localized narrative and to consider more foreign narratives – i.e. someone else’s local history. Local history museums are boring because the narrative we use – the one that says British settlers came here to strike out on their own in a free place – is entirely constructed and doesn’t apply to most Americans in the current age. Adhering to that narrative forces local histories to leave out their most important elements, because they are weighted disproportionately little. Few American history textbooks, for instance, talk about the US as a country that began with any leadership other than British – the original thirteen colonies were part of the British Empire and our government was modeled after Britain’s, so by extension America is an offshoot of Britain. Except that France and Spain both had enormous imperial presence in what would become the US (and also the Dutch had New York, let’s not forget about them), and there was that overwhelmingly massive population of natives from hundreds of different tribes with distinct cultures, languages, and governments all across the land that is now this country. So to cram all that information into a British narrative, we have to ignore most of it. Which is why the San Mateo County History Museum says that there was basically nothing in San Mateo county before the 17th Century.

Things really change if we focus instead on what actually matters to the region itself. One thing the museum did incredibly well was emphasize how the development of the modern region was tied to the development of transportation technology – that automated transit like trains allowed wealthy businessmen to hold land farther outside the city while still being able to commute in. But the museum curators could take this a step further if they dig more into the local culture and if they are willing to show unresolved conflict. Two great examples of how to do this have recently come out of a pair of brothers I know from New Mexico, one writing about what to do in Santa Fe for a day, the other writing about how the vandalism of a local statue in Albuquerque brought breaks in the community to the fore. These are very different stories, but they both explore New Mexico in its own terms, as a place with at least three identities that are founded in a history of Native, Spanish, and English(ish) conflict and begrudging cooperation. More than just the ability to tell these stories in our own regions, though, it is important to hear them about other parts of the country (and, indeed, the world) as well, without resorting to the extremely simplified anthropological narrative. We could just talk about every place in terms of broad generalizations about the people who live there – they are a proud people or they are relaxed and easy-going – as well as in terms of their main industries and most “colorful” traditions. Or we can investigate the pressure points of the society – both “where is the conflict” and “where is the lifeblood”.

We don’t need to think too hard about what the events that represent these pressure points are – they are our most common traditions as well as our most divisive arguments – but we need to have the stomach to talk about them publicly. Which is why it’s useful to consider both our own local history and somewhere else’s – we can see these things more easily in other places, when we have a hard time questioning our own cultures. Looking at both something familiar and something foreign helps us to identify what the important data points are and come to terms with the narrative that most compellingly comes out of them. This process of stringing a narrative relies on the ability to analyze complex data, to look at mundane events and special circumstances and weed through them to find what is most significant (without emphasizing things that actually speak to a different, ill-fitting narrative).

Analyzing complex data is a skill that could really serve people well, even in a STEM-focused world that seems to have given up on qualitative analysis. Part of being able to do this analysis is learning that there is information that can’t be represented numerically. A great example of this was a final project the students in my immigration class did back in the Spring. They were supposed to use census data to learn about immigration and immigrant communities, and a lot of them wanted to write about the formation of minority communities and perceptions of race. But most of them came back to me halfway through the project, saying that they’d hit a wall because the census keeps changing how it records race. I saw this as a huge success for their projects, because instead of trying to numerically represent people – there were 40% more Latinos in New York in 1980 than in 1960 – they were now trying to understand why the category of race was changing and what was happening in the social life of the country, the experience of immigrants, and the legislation of immigration that prompted these changes. Contrast this with critical thinking – another important skill historians tend to use and focus on the most. Whereas critical thinking teaches people to question the information being presented to them, often in a single source or between two sources by considering contexts such as authorial bias, analysis of complex data teaches people to question the entire premise on which the sources are presented. It asks the reader to take two steps back and see not only the individual who produced the source, but the system in which that individual did so and even the circumstances by which that source came to the reader.

In a data- driven world, this kind of analysis is increasingly useful, both as a producer of data-driven research and a consumer whose activities end up in and are informed by that data. Learning to question the much larger context of data gathering can make individuals more savvy to what exactly data show and how they could be skewed. But as a coder trying to, say, teach an AI to create data, it is important to understand how categories are themselves created. Google has gotten really good at being able to search for what you meant, rather than what you said, at this point allowing people to ask questions of the search engine in plain language without having to use Boolean phrases. But we can still get better at this processing – traditionally, programmers have turned to linguistics to develop new methods of machine learning, based on the idea that language drives code. But a person who types in a search query isn’t looking for language, they’re looking for meaning, and have in fact already translated their thoughts into written language to be able to articulate them. I imagine complex data analysis being a way to bypass a further translation altogether by considering what people actually mean when they use specific words, rather than what those words mean definitionally.

So how can we make history accessible in ways that both emphasize important narratives and model (or teach) the skill of complex data analysis? On the one hand, there are the changes that we can make to history curricula at all levels. At the lower school level, when we introduce kids to broad narratives and try to get them interested in the world around them, we should be doing more to familiarize the unfamiliar. A lot of elementary schools already do this – by taking kids on field trips to local sites and explaining local and foreign history in broad strokes. But we can do more by encouraging kids to ask why is this place the way it is? We discourage this question by giving simplistic answers, like This street is named after Duke Ellington because he was important and he lived here – he did something that no one else did. In reality, the answer is more layered and complex, having to do both with the person the street is named after and the people who named the street. Kids understand that kind of complexity, they ask for it naturally.

At the high school level, we should be teaching complicated narratives that speak to today’s problems rather than today’s superiority over the past. This is a smaller part of my issue with the progress narrative – the view that society is by definition always getting better. When we tell high schoolers that things are the best they’ve ever been and they don’t feel that’s true – either because they are bored teenagers or because they are living in circumstances that are oppressive – they tune out. Instead, we should teach narratives that build toward problems in the present, because these ask for solutions, which is what kids that age are really interested in developing. Then, we give kids this age the tools to answer these questions using methods of critical thinking such as primary sources that show conflicting viewpoints. This level of thinking allows for enough complexity and interest that students can find their own interests and read broadly on their own out of the classroom.

At the college level, we can start to get into debates over different explanations of the past and different lenses that change the narrative. This is where complex data analysis really comes into play; assuming students already understand the basics of critical thinking, they can now begin to question where the information they’ve used to construct a narrative comes from. Delving into that allows for the opportunity to see historians debate and what it looks like to use events as building blocks for an argument.

But when historians are not acting explicitly as teachers, when we are writing history for general audiences, it behooves us to model these techniques ourselves. I think the key to this lies more in showing our work, rather than presenting our opinions as facts. The surety with which historians talk about the past is what convinces people that history never changes, when really history is subjective and changes based on who is looking at it and when. I think we can do more to walk people through the kind of evidence we use, not by excerpting massive chunks of text, but rather presenting a kind of annotated guide to our sources. This is a step backward for most of us, because it is the sort of exercise that historians do when we are learning how to read closely, but for our audience it is a new technique and it puts on display the ways that uncertainty and viewpoint construct narratives.

I think we can also write more compelling narratives, that place the significance in the forefront. Historians tend to relegate significance to the bookends, since they are typically writing for people in their field who need specifics, but otherwise understand why a smaller point might be important to the larger understanding of a time period. But when speaking to a general audience, historians really need to make their argument that what they are writing about is significant, because their readers probably aren’t too interested in the past to begin with. We should always be answering the question why should I care about something that has already happened? And not answering it to get it out of the way, but to make a point, secondary to which is our particular narrative. So, if I were developing a mass-market book out of my dissertation, the focus of the book would be convincing the audience to care about Norman Sicily. And I would try to do that by explaining that, especially in Germanic and Romance linguistic zones, we take for granted the idea that it’s possible to translate a text into another language, and that if you want to read something there’s a good chance you can find a translation of it. But that in Norman Sicily, there was a culture that both fostered and preempted translation, and so maybe we should think about exchanging information in the modern world in terms of developing a multicultural community rather than in terms of importing new things from afar.

I think if historians start to think about history as something that everyone needs to know, we will realize that we need to meet everyone else half way. Not everyone needs to be a historian, so there’s a lot more that we can do to make history accessible at every level. We don’t rely on memorizing facts anymore, so why would we present it to everyone else that way? If we want to draw people into history, we’ve got to show them things that are actually interesting, and that means introducing nuance and complexity.