Historian and international relations theorist E.H. Carr famously defined history this way: “My first answer, therefore, to the question, What is History?, is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his (or her) facts, an unending dialogue between the past and present.”

At the college and K-12 levels of education, do we teach history differently, depending on what is happening in the world right now?
I teach about Andrew Johnson and impeachment in the context of Reconstruction after the Civil War each year in my U.S. history survey course. But do I teach differently about Johnson’s impeachment in the context of our current president’s impeachment? I attended a conference of professional historians and found a panel on teaching and activism to be particularly thought-provoking. One of the panelists underscored the need for knowledge and understanding – but not understanding just for the sake of knowledge. Instead, that historians should teach understanding in order to change the way we think about ourselves and our world. That knowledge can transform us, and then, in turn, we can transform the world around us, a bit at a time. Another historian advocated for the teaching of good history – emphasizing the context of sources, complexity, and change over time as we teach our students how to investigate the past. After all, historians love to disagree and fight over our interpretations of sources (twitterstorians, anyone?), though most of the time, our footnotes demonstrate how much we really agree and support each’s other work and interpretations of sources. Another historian remarked that teaching should make us learn and study, as teachers and as students, in a way that makes us less selfish, less fearful, and less insecure.

Another historian claimed we should NOT acknowledge the current age too much in our work. After all, the age of Trump, or the age of Bush or Obama are not necessarily the cause but the outcome of a complex set of circumstances and events. Instead, historians should continue to focus on the questions of ‘who am I?’ and ‘why does it matter’? and interrogate the framing of these cultural moments – how do we decide what defines an era? Is it our political leadership? Our presidents? Or should social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo or technology and communication trends define an era?

The last historian remarked that historians have the best answers to simple and complex questions. He also made the claim that telling the truth is, historically, a political act. History is an ideal vehicle for understanding the complexities of race and justice. For example, if teaching at Mississippi State University, students must navigate the slave-owning past, reflected in a Confederate monument at the entrance to campus. So many students respond to the content of history classes by saying, “how could we have not known this?” Some (but not all) students go further and respond, “what can I do about it?”

Is activism the outcome or the goal of teaching?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

7 Comments

  • Pam Adams says:

    Rebecca, This is a very important point. I think we need to learn in order to do. Knowledge and action go together.

  • John says:

    Poor teaching leads to poor activism, and the reverse is true also. We have had some poor teaching currently and in the past. We have tried to sanitize our past by tearing down confederate statues, this I believe is a result of poor teaching. Poor teaching currently is evidenced in the younger generation not having a good grasp of the dangers of socialism and communism. Poor teaching has left the general population ignorant of the constitution and this has resulted in some recent political failures.

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      John, the United Daughters of the Confederacy is an organization to look up on google as you study the historical origins and purposes of the confederate statues that were funded, created and erected decades after the Civil War ended. Erecting these statues was a core part of the sanitization process, not the current efforts to remove them.

    • Daniel Walcott says:

      John,
      You suggest it is poor teaching that results in the removal of confederate statues. Are not all statues erected in order to venerate someone for what they have done? Are you suggesting it is poor teaching that would lead someone to not want to venerate people who were willing to go to war in order to secede from a country that would no longer allow the enslavement of people? Would you suggest we should venerate someone who would buy and sell humans as property and then cause the death of thousands to defend that right?

      • John says:

        Should we tear down a presidential library because that President advocated the killing of babies?
        Our History is our history, sanitizing a segment of it does not remove it from our history.

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Hi John,
    I don’t know which teachers you are referring to but I know that in several decades of teaching world history, I made it a point to familiarize my students with the historical meaning of terms such as communism and socialism–including democratic socialism such as we see in the Netherlands and other northern European countries–along with terms that relate to the other end of the political spectrum such as fascism and conservative authoritarianism. As I understand it, good history teachers go beyond purely intellectual definitions of various ideologies to examine their actual historical manifestations.
    Regards, Dan Miller

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Rebecca, thanks for these insights. When I teach classes on climate and climate change, especially at the general science level, I try to include a modest amount of the historical development of our current scientific understanding. I do this because I want the students to see that knowledge and understanding are always evolving and that our current understanding is much deeper and more robust than it was even 20-30 years ago. The question you raise of the connection between knowledge and activism is also highly relevant in my classes. I certainly hope and pray that my students leave the class with a clearer understanding of the relationship between human activity and impacts on the environment in terms of both pollution and climate change; I think it is my responsibility as a teacher to make these connections understandable and based in facts. I hope and pray that my students also consider their actions in light of this information. I think every teacher does that, but it is not my place or role to tell them what actions to take. That activism is the responsibility of the individual student.

    Best wishes as you work through how to deal with this issue in history classes. I think that is a much more difficult task than I face in the sciences. I have co-taught a class on science and ethics and it certainly was a challenge for us in that class.

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