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?