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Mar 10, 2004 2:44 am


History of History Teaching



So the so-called"greatest generation" didn't do well on standardized history tests? Hmmm. I was thinking about my own history career before college. I went to a really good high school in Chattanooga, TN and had:

*7th grade - American History - junior school football coach
*9th grade -"government" - not bad, though the teacher was reputedly a charity hire; he was certainly odd, without being crazy enough to be vivid or fun
*10th grade - European history - the chainsmoking registrar, the only class he taught. Misery. I read the textbook to pass the time, and when I finished that started snaffling books off his shelf. Guess that's why I did well on the AP.
*11th grade - American history from a man who was a historian. Bob Bailey, r.i.p, was a fine teacher and a fine historian. If he did anything outside the classroom for the school (and it was the kind of place where every teacher did something) I don't remember it. We were his priority. Little as I have grown up to enjoy the kind of historian who wears costumes which reflect his favorite period this man could make us think that history was interesting and that writing the history term paper was a mild imposition.

I have no problem believing that most people learned little from their history teachers, given how little I, who seemed to be destined for the subject, learned from 3 out of 4 in high school.

Was your experience different?

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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/11/2004

I can't think of a history teacher before or in college who taught me much. In primary and most of secondary school I probably just wasn't much engaged with the subject. Perhaps it wasn't taught in a very exciting way. But I did get bits of ancient history from my 4 years of Latin.

My interest in history developed with my interest in Marxism-Leninism in highschool. This was during the early 1970s and I had developed a rather dark view of the top levels of our government, due to all the things that were openly discussed in the news media at that time. I did some reading and took one college level history course that I remember and quickly got the impression that history professors were mostly establishmentarian anti-communists. I already knew that I didn't do well in a situation where I had substantial disagreements with an authority figure who was in a position to harm my interests (via grading), so I decided that pursuing history as a major or a minor was not a good idea, and that I would pursue self-study outside academia.

During the late 1970s I learned more about U.S. intelligence activities and came to believe that they have a lot more to do with the running of our political system than our leaders and media want us to believe. It was clear to me that most historians at that time still believed in America as "the land of the free and the home of the brave," where the government wouldn't ever assassinate its own citizens or smuggle illegal drugs into the country, so I was confirmed in my decision to avoid academic history, and when I went to college full time for 3-4 years in the early 80s, I took no history classes. I don't regret that at all.

I gather that history professors as a group have changed somewhat in the last 20 years, and their views may be more compatible with mine by now. I hope so for students coming up now who were like I was 20-30 years ago.


Jonathan Dresner - 3/10/2004

The one place where I did have an interest in history, from early on, and sustained by good teachers and interesting questions, was with regard to Jewish history. Between treating the Torah, etc. as an historical text, and the story of Judaism through the ages, I had some fine teachers and good reasons to be interested in the subject matter.


Michael C Tinkler - 3/10/2004

I like the dark glasses. I think I'm going to try that tomorrow :)


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/10/2004

I was lucky. I had what I think was a world geography course in 6th grade that got fascinated me in some manner.

Texas History in 7th grade I got from a coach who wore dark glasses (so we couldn't tell who he was looking at), threw blackboard erasers at students who talked, and who had closet full of Marquis de Sade paddles with which the males were sometimes threatened. (Corporal punishment was legit, though the paddle he used did not have the holes and protrusions of his closet collection.

My 8th grade US history coach was actually ok.

My 11th history teacher was superb. Young, intelligent, (I had a crush on her). She was fairly conservative (this was Fall 1968 in a Dallas suburb) in a really conservative school system, but she wanted us to think for ourselves. I like to think that the respect she showed me eventually turned up in my classroom.

She was a big influence. History matter the way she taught it. And in the way she carried herself I learned something about the intelligence of women that made me "feminist" before I learned the word.


Jonathan Dresner - 3/10/2004

Actually, I can go you a little better: I didn't have a decent history teacher through college, and it's nearly accidental that I ended up in a history Ph.D. program. My HS history/social studies teachers were unremarkable, except for the ex-cop who taught law, and taught it quite well (I still remember quite a bit, and I date my love of Constitutional Law from his classes). I must have been studying something, but very little stuck. I even took AP US history, but skipped the test (I was a senior and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to do very well), though I was prepared to argue on the class final that Millard Fillmore was our most successful president, based on the percentage of campaign promises fulfilled.

My college history classes were no better. As a Japanese language major I skipped the EuroCiv survey and went right to the year-long Japanese history class taught by the Jesuit who specialized in Chinese Jesuit missions. Awful lecturer, miserable with students (my abiding horror at the thought of losing a student paper goes right back to watching him abuse a friend of mine by accusing her of lying about not turning in something she actually turned in early) and incapable of answering a direct question (though by the end of the first semester I had figured out how to ask a nearly indirect question that would elicit the information I wanted), predictable (our study group actually predicted, nearly word for word, one of the questions on the second semester final exam) and a vision of history that had a lot to do with discreet periodizations and memorization. To be fair, though, I still use a variant of the book review assignment which he used, as a way to introduce students to the discipline of reading secondary scholarship.

I wasn't going to be a historian.

But, I did encounter Marxist history in Japan, not so much as a theoretical construct, but as a history that acknowledged something other than the highest strata of society as important. And I got interested in questions of social and cultural evolution which seemed more historical than contemporary. So I applied to history programs. Good thing, too. Granted, if I'd known what I was doing I would have applied to different programs, but I got out OK....

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