Teaching history

I miss being in the classroom. The COVID crisis helped the school for which I taught hasten its transfer from classroom teaching to online teaching. They had already been pushing that direction for some time. I took the training sessions but did not offer to teach online. The students who enrolled in my classes preferred to learn in the classroom. But when the campus was closed, the conversion to online teaching forced me to take a break in my college career. Now, I suspect, the break has become a permanent retirement.

My classroom was on a military base, although the school responsible for the classes is a state institution. Many of my students were active military personnel; others were family of active personnel, retired military personnel, and people from the community who enrolled through the state school. I had a few students older than me, while I also had students still in high school earning their first college credits.

I taught history. Occasionally I taught a class in world religions or in introduction to philosophy, but mostly I taught the survey history classes: World History to 1650 and World History since 1650. The year 1650 was arbitrarily chosen; it was the middle of the textbook. Even when the school faculty changed textbooks and the new textbook split around 1500, they didn’t bother to change the name of the classes. Sometimes I would challenge students to guess why the class either began or ended with 1650. I heard some good suggestions about the Industrial Revolution, the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, and other landmarks that might have happened around 1650; students groaned when I told them that the only reason the year was chosen was that it was the middle of the book. But I then made the point that we have as much information to study and learn about the past 370 years as we have for the thousands of years that preceded 1650.

Some of my student signed up for the class because they love history. Others took it only because they were required to have one class in history. I managed to benefit the entire range of students. People who think they hate history, more often than not, had history ruined for them by a bad teacher, one who forced them to memorize names and places and dates, to focus on trivia that is easily found online. I focused on teaching the bigger themes of history, giving students a reason to seek the details online. A survey class cannot spend time on details. Taking a survey class in history is like running through a buffet restaurant—one sees and smells some of the food available, and one can return later to sample the dishes that seemed most appealing. I had the students write some “compare and contrast” essays to force them into a bit of focused research: What similarities and differences can one find studying Napoleon and Hitler? What similarities and differences can one find studying Socrates and Confucius? I gave them choices so they could focus on topics most interesting to them (and so I wouldn’t have to read a dozen versions of the same essay). But mostly I invited them to see the vast themes of human history on this planet. We discussed migrations, wars, economic trade, and the spread of ideas. We talked about significant developments in technology, artistic expression, and philosophy. We analyzed the significance of geographic features, climate change at various times in history, foods, and diseases. At times we debated similarities and connections between past happenings and current events.

The first night we met was always exciting, and also a bit stressful, even anxiety-inducing. They would find out what kind of instructor I aimed to be and how their work as students would be evaluated; I measured how willing they would be to discuss ideas in the classroom and to share experiences that related to our lessons. For example, when we talked about the beliefs and practices of Muslims, some of my students were able to describe things they had seen in Muslim countries. One of the joys of teaching college is the presence of students who have learned things I haven’t learned or who have had experiences I haven’t had. I always invited them to share what they knew with the rest of us.

I also invited them to challenge interpretations of history, even those that were presented on the quizzes. I wanted them to see that history is more that memorizing a list of data; history is sorting the data, connecting the data, and interpreting the data. Historians sort through information, seeking understandings of what happened, why it happened, and what it caused to happen. Historians are allowed to disagree with one another. Sometimes I disagreed with the textbook. Students were allowed and invited to disagree with me—not to earn an extra point on a quiz, but to help all of us learn more about history. If they stated their case well, using valid information from the textbook or other sources, I gave them the point. If they were merely quibbling, I held to the point, defending it and showing how historians work to gather and share their understanding of history.

Near the end of the first night’s discussion, I told the class about President Nixon. In August 1974, Nixon resigned from the office of President—he is the only U.S. President to resign. The Watergate scandal that produced that resignation is complicated, and I did not describe it that first night. But I explained how distraught, discouraged, and depressed he was having to leave that important job that he had fought so much to gain and to hold. I then told the students how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tried to comfort the President by saying that history would remember him more kindly than his contemporaries. I also quoted Nixon’s response to those words, as he said, “That depends upon who writes the histories.”

I pointed out to the students that, by enrolling in that class, they had become historians. They were taking on responsibility—they would help to write the histories. They owed it to their subjects, and to those who would read their work, to be accurate and fair. They would need to do thorough research, to think clearly and deeply about the information they had studied, and to communicate their conclusions effectively, convincingly, and honestly.

I would like to believe that, over the years, I have helped to shape a few good historians. I miss being in the classroom. J.