Pairing the Past with the Future

history_2It’s been nine years since I retired from education but I have continued to regularly work with students. I can state without hesitation that they are learning mathematics at a much higher level and faster pace than any program that was around when I was a student back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. They are seeing quite advanced material but I’m always a bit concerned that there are still too many who are struggling for mastery of the concepts. I fear that we still operate from a one size fits all mentality when it comes to the pacing of our teaching when we still have students chomping at the bit to move forward and even more struggling to keep up with the flow of information. We seem to have made a race of the learning process rather than tailoring it to the individual needs of each student.

Part of the problem that we have is that as we progress there is more and more material to cover within any discipline in the same amount of time that there was over a hundred years ago. This becomes a particular problem when it comes to and subject but particularly with history, whether it be about the state, the nation or the world. Choosing what to cover and what to leave out has created well known problems with the historical knowledge that young people possess after finishing the required coursework in school. When I was a student the curriculum essentially ended with World War II, leaving more time for in depth emphasis on critical topics. It’s been more than fifty years since I formally studied history and so much has happened since then that needs to be presented and discussed, but what has to go to make room for more recent events?

I suppose that if I were to suggest one very major change to the general education programs in our school it would be to have history be an integral part of every single year of school rather than providing a bit here and a bit there as it now is. American History should be taught in the the fourth or fifth grade, again in the eighth grade and for two years in high school with World History being given at least that much time as well. Courses such as psychology and sociology are certainly interesting but they are not as essential as learning about the past and understanding its impact on both today and tomorrow.

We need a better educated population not just in the STEM subjects but also the social science of history. There is great wisdom in the old saw that history helps us to learn from the mistakes of the past. It furthermore helps us to make connections that provide us with tools for analysis of the present.

I sometimes shudder when faced with the ignorance of history that I encounter with far too many of today’s young. I recall talking with a group of students who knew little or nothing about the political differences between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson which lie at the very heart of the arguments dividing our nation even today. They were unaware that we live in a republic rather than a pure democracy and have no idea what that fact implies. They were unsure of what actually happened in the holocaust and new virtually nothing about the Russian Revolution and the Cold War. They seemed to get most of their information from dubious sites on social media and much of what they did know      was either limited or outright wrong.

While we certainly need our mathematicians and scientists to combat our the problems that plague us, we also should demand that our young graduate from high school with a clear understanding of where our world has been and we must insist that the knowledge that our teachers impart is done so without a tinge of propaganda or editorializing. History is best taught from primary sources that demonstrate the differing points of view that led to decisions that influenced events. Students should be able to see how and why such choices affected outcomes. They need to learn that none of us ever operates in a vacuum and that how we react to events is almost always determined by the worldview of our own time in life.

I studied English grammar and literature in college along with mathematics. I learned that analyzing language or writing requires an understanding of the times in which a tract was written. It is far easier to understand characters of a story when we have a concept of what it was like to be them in a certain time and place. History is as important to the study of the great artistic works of writing as knowing literary devices. Our human experience as portrayed in art is dependent on the times in which the works were created and we will never fully understand them if we do not have some knowledge of history to guide us.

Education has essentially been done in the same basic manner for some time now with only a bit of experimentation here and there. We’ve had a kind of revolution with the teaching of mathematics and science that emphasizes both theory and practice using abstract, visual and concrete examples. It’s time that we rethink the scope and sequencing of history classes as well to allow enough time to study events and ideas in depth. It’s a challenge that we seriously need to undertake as overwhelming as it may seem. We owe it to our children to adequately prepare them for the future and the key to doing that well lies in understanding the past.   

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