Should History Be Taught Backwards?


If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.

One of the unlikeliest subjects to catch fire in the world of bloggers is the desirability of teaching history backwards. Below are comments recently posted by three well-known bloggers, including HNN's Thomas Spencer.


Hey, people are talking about teaching history in the blogosphere -- and I was out of pocket to talk about it at the time. What a drag!

Anyway, both CalPundit and Atrios posted this weekend about teaching history backwards -- and a few college professors have actually posted on the comment boards over at Atrios and CalPundit!

I have toyed with this idea and one of my colleagues tried it a couple of semesters ago. She said it was difficult and didn't work. She only tried it once. That doesn't mean it can't work but explaining causation becomes quite a problem I'm told.

My approach is to constantly try to draw connections to the present -- especially when the past is teaching us lessons we've happily decided to ignore. I also try to spend a fair amount of time on Cold War and post-Cold War history as well. I got a bit behind this semester but I always try to get to the present. However, I must admit that the post-1996 part of my course is still primarily composed of wisecracks.

I think my students do find the last week of class the most useful. I'll be teaching an upper-level course in U.S. Since 1945 next fall and I'm really looking forward to it!

ATRIOS 4-27-03

I think I agree with Calpundit that students would like history much more if it were taught backwards. I honestly can't remember if I was ever formally taught any modern history past the Johnson administration, and even that was probably limited to the last few weeks of my senior year in high school. I think I learned about Rome and Greece, the Lynne Cheney version of Colonial/Revolutionary American history and the Civil War multiple times, a couple runs at WW1 and WW2, and then in my senior year a teensy bit on the 60s, but that's it. The required course in college was a grand Western Civ. overview, and I took a bit of Russian history voluntarily.

It isn't entirely clear why this is the case, though I bet that part of the reason is that one can't teach the recent past without being explicitly political. All teaching of history is to some degree political, but it's much more obvious - and controversial - when the subject is recent U.S. history.

I think we could extend this to the teaching of literature also. I really don't get why Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare seem to be taught in the earlier years of high school, followed by 19th century Brits and Americans (the latter, in particular, mostly horribly dull), and modern and contemporary literature seem to be relegated to that senior year honors English class. A reasonable guess is that it's partially for similar reasons - in the case of literature, the "naughty bits" of contemporary literature are somewhat more obvious than those in, say, Shakespeare and we wouldn't want little Jane to read a couple of bad words until she's ready to graduate.

But, in both cases the effect is the same. For your average 15 year old, even 20 years ago is the distant past. And, "stories" - history or fiction - from the distant past seem to have little relevance for your typical teen.


THE MIRROR OF HISTORY....Yesterday I wrote a post about math education that attracted a lot of interesting comments, including a couple from a Fields Medal winner. (My new motto: "Calpundit — Home of Commentary from Fields Winners!") That was pretty cool, so today I think I'll try another pedagogical category: history.

This is a subject that I talk about frequently with my mother (an actual teacher, mind you), trying to figure out why it's such a disliked subject. After all, we like history, but surveys routinely show that it's the least liked subject, ranking even below obvious suspects like math and spelling.

Why is it so disliked? Who knows, really, but it's probably because it seems so remote from normal life. It's pretty hard, after all, for most teenagers to get very enthused about a long-ago debate over the Missouri Compromise that has only the most tenuous connection to the present day.

So in the true spirit of blogging (especially weekend blogging!), here's my dumb amateur idea about how to teach history: do it backward.

It's hard for kids to get interested in century old debates without knowing all the context around them, but they might very well be interested in current day events. So why not start now and explain the events that got us here? War on terrorism? Sure, let's teach it, and that leads us backward to a discussion of how the current state of affairs is the successor to the bipolar world that came apart in 1989. And that leads back to the Cold War, and that leads back to World War II, etc.

In other words, invert cause and effect. Try to get them wondering about the causes of things they already know about, and then use this curiosity to lead them inexorably backward through history.

This is for teenagers, of course, not grammar school kids, who are probably best off with pilgrims, ancient Egyptians, and other picturesque topics. But it might work in high school and junior high school.

All we need now is to get a brilliant historian together with the guy who directed Memento and we'll have it made. We can call it "The Mirror of History."

UPDATE: Over at Atrios, a commenter makes the point that recent history isn't really even taught at all in high school, let alone as part of a broader history curriculum. As Atrios suggests, this is probably because recent history is so overtly political that it's hard to teach it without offending a lot of parents, but even so, how ridiculous is this? Really, which is more important: understanding the American Revolution or understanding the Cold War? An entire year devoted to understanding the most recent few decades of history would probably be one of the most valuable classes a kid could have.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tony D. Jackson - 1/30/2005

I am a first year teacher in a private school. When I entered the class for my first day of World History, I had perused the prescribed textbook and thought it would be fine. After the first day kids were already telling me how boring history was to them. So I decided to incorporate two things into my class; backwards and modern history. So we started at the 2004 Greece Olympics and worked our way back. My question is two fold. First does anyone have some ideas to make this a more "complete" curriculum for my administrator to be happy. Also Without a textbook what have the collective "you" done for reading material? Second is what are the responses for parents to have them believe in what you are doing with their children? I was given this blog site from my principal and am hoping to hear some feedback. Thanks

David Paschall - 12/8/2004

Tam- I am curious if you have tried this out. I am trying to compile info from teachers who have used this approach and would welcome your input. Thanks

Tam Noel Smith - 8/2/2004

I am considering teaching World History backwards this school year to Sophomores. ( In at least two of my five classes) I would appreciate any informtion, guidance, etc., that you might be willing to share on the subject.

David Paschall - 7/11/2004

I am curious if you are still employing this technique in any of your survey courses. I am including this technique as part of my graduate thesis at St. Edward's Univ. in Austin, TX. Any thoughts you might have would be appreciated. I am compiling reports from teachers/professors using this approach from all parts of the country. Thanks- David Paschall- pascal52@austin.rr.com

David Paschall - 7/11/2004

I would like to compare notes with you on how you structure your class. I've been doing this for about the same amount of time (basically as a result of reading Loewen's "Lies My Teacher Told me" particualrly chapter 9- Recent History).

David Paschall - 7/11/2004

I enjoyed the "Connections" series on PBS a decade or so ago. The narrator was able to tie what we consider modern inventions, like the atom bomb, to ancient inventions such as catapults. It presented a kind of backward and forward meander through time that has been successful in capturing my students' attention.

david lee paschall - 6/22/2004

I have been teaching history backwards for several years and I'd have to agree that the texts I have used all fall short of meaningful acknowledgements of recent history. James Loewen has a provocative chapter in "Lies My Teacher Told Me" on recent history. It brings into question how we can accomodate the many perspectives available on history of the last generation or two.

david lee paschall - 6/22/2004

I have been teaching history this way for many years, although only with high schoolers, but would bet that it can be adapted for younger kids. The main emphasis for me is on analyzing current events, though I start the class with each student making a personal timeline, and then adding at least one event for each year of their lives. Then I follow that up with a family history so they have to talk to parents, etc. to find out about events from the last 40 years or so. I'd be interested in any stories you have...successes, problems, etc.

david lee paschall - 6/22/2004

I have been teaching history backwards for several years and I'd have to agree that the texts I have used all fall short of meaningful acknowledgements of recent history. James Loewen has a provocative chapter in "Lies My Teacher Told Me" on recent history. It brings into question how we can accomodate the many perspectives available on history of the last generation or two.

Alison Marlowe - 9/13/2003

I'm new to the blogging, but I'm intrigued by the idea of teaching history backward and inverting cause and effect. Do you think 10-year-olds are sophisticated enough for me to try this with them? Or is another "jazz it up" technique in order for them?

Alison Marlowe
Rockville MD

Robert Whealey - 6/11/2003

The idea of teaching history backwards is a fine idea. I gave this topic as a scholarly paper which was published as "An Introductory European History Honors Course: An Experiment" _AHA Newsletter_ (Oct. 1968).

It was a great sucess in Hist 103, 1848 to Present." It was very popular with my freshmen, who could not think historically. My mistake was to carry the idea on to 102 and 101. I was a specialist in the 20th Century ,so that my first two lectures became, in latter years of teaching, a discussion on the present war. That raises questions in the student's mind ideas about the 1991 war and the 1948 war. My third lecture went back to the beginning of the text book --World War II.

Back in the 1970s, I had the ambition to do a text book using this backwards proceedure. That idea did not work, unless the author re-wrote the lecture every year and published a loose leaf edition. We historians could do this easier with a reading from political science.

In 1968, I had the Vietnam war on my plate. Today we have the Middle East. In 1977 or 1993, I began with the last Presidential election.

George Laugelli - 5/26/2003

I came to this site by way of a Google search on "backwards history" because I am thinking of starting a web site devoted to the idea of backwards history. One thing the internet is good at is showing that there is no such thing as an original idea. That said, I have thought about such an approach for several years and have some ideas on how to tackle it. Sounds like teaching it in a classroom is harder than it seems, but a web site may be easier with its blend of static content and interactive links.

Anyway, I found the discussion (and the site) intersting. I'm still months away from posting anything but if anyone is interested they can e-mail me at gjlau@hotmail.com. I will welcome any suggestions or comments.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/6/2003

I have taught a U.S. since 1945 course backwards three times now. The course is a bit of an odd fish, as it is interdsciplinary (with Comm Arts) and much of the learning is focused around groups researching and creating discussions.

At least in this context, the backward movement has helped me show cause and effect as subsequent presentations often illumine the roots of topics discussed earlier.

One big difference is that I run out of course time as we approach the end of World War II, as opposed to running out near the present.

Still, I like it, and I might do it for this course even if the class was not interdisciplinary.

it is not perfect. I think it would get harder (and more problematic) when covering longer time periods. But depending on one's priorities in education, it can be worth a try.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2003

The essence of the arguments about teaching history backwards that students don't actually know what's going on now, and even those that do don't see it as part of a longer process. There's a lot to be said for making students research the historical roots of the present, but there's more to be said, I think, for making it clear that the present is at the END of the process, not the beginning.

The core of the problem is the failure of most history texts and courses to come up to the present in any meaningful way. It's not easy, of course, to teach the present without revealing a lot of personal opinions, but if you lay the foundation properly it can be done. If the history is taught as process, not as event, then students are more open to the idea that we are within a developing situation rather than in some isolated "moment." If you make it clear that the sudden appearance of a phenomenon is usually presaged by earlier examples and slow starts, then students can argue that what's happening now is an outgrowth of things that came before.

Most important in my teaching of World History is discussing those moments in time when something that we now consider second nature comes into existence. This lets students know that the present is a constructed and cumulative thing.....

Michael Ryan-Kessler - 5/5/2003

I have been teaching high school history from the 1990s on back for five years now. I see nothing particularly problomatic about it. Cause and effect is just as easy when seen as effect and cause.

Bill Rorabaugh - 5/5/2003

Actually, one of Berkeley's great teachers, Leon Litwack, once tried this with the US Survey course. Students were confused, and he never repeated the experiment. There is something about the human brain wanting to move from past to present that is a natural progression.