As a historian, it is often frustrating to me what little consideration we as a society give to the purpose behind our study of history. What is it that we are hoping to accomplish when we examine the past? Are our forays into past times and places strictly for personal fulfillment, or is there, as we so often say, a “moral” to the story?
When I engage in personal conversations about history with non-academics, I am met with a stock of different responses. There is the prototypical, old high-school student who found history, as a class, a frivolous bore. For them, history consisted of static environments contained within the pages of a stuffy textbook. Personally, I must say I can’t blame them for their aversion! As I’ve continued down the road towards making the study of history my vocation I have learned that this, although an all too common experience, is not what the study of history truly entails. On the other end of the spectrum, however, I have encountered those who do enjoy history, but do so without turning a critical eye to its interpretation. For these individuals, history’s stories and characters are the objects of fascination and intrigue in place of any deeper personal meaning. In effect, though, both responses leave something to be desired.
While I would love for everyone to take a genuine interest in history as a discipline, I realize that this is not realistic, nor practical. In the short time that we have to teach history to our youth, though, we need to enact some changes in the manner in which we teach it.
As a subject in elementary and secondary school, history is taught as a series of facts to be memorized and regurgitated for a grade. It is often solely contained in a textbook that, like a train on rails, travels chronologically, page by page, chapter by chapter, in linear progression, binding any form of intellectual inquiry. This kind of survey study, while necessary in building a base of knowledge and facilitating historical inquiry, has replaced it entirely in many curricula.
In the sciences, inquiry is emphasized as the principal component of the scientific method, but in the humanities, where the search for truth is just as relevant and essential, this is not the case. Research is to history what an experiment is to chemistry, or physics, or biology; it’s this “hands-on” experience that motivates students to learn. Instead of a laboratory, students of history put their hard hats and goggles on when they engage primary sources, those documents which are, put simply, closest to the person, place, or period being studied. Rather than relying on the interpretation of a textbook, historical research allows the student to pose his or her own questions, pursue them, and form their own answers. As an exercise, historical research allows students to reconcile the differences between separate places and times, illustrating connections between the past and the present that foster an appreciation of the study of history for its own sake, and its relevance to and significance in the present.
Within certain parameters and with proper guidance, the use of primary sources in the classroom would further develop students’ facility for critical thinking, beneficial not only in the field of history, but in other areas as well. It is this capacity for critical thinking, in connecting the past to the present, that is the “moral” of the study of history.