What's wrong with history?

NEXT Monday marks the centennial meeting of the American Historical Association, the nation's most prestigious historical organization. Sadly, the auspicious event coincides with the issuance of a survey by the National Endowment for the Humanities that reveals that history is a loser among school subjects. To many students, it seems, history is replacing economics as the dismal science. Part of the problem is the increasing concern among parents and students for practical subjects; another is the tendency to merge history into catchall courses in social studies that serve neither the past nor the other component subjects very well. And then there is the tendency of some history teachers to view the field as a great, but unexciting, sea of definitions and dates to master.

State departments of education worry about texts that might be too critical. So a not infrequent result is a standard text that is effusive with praise, with inadequate attention to the nation's underside.

Even historians have problems: Sensitive to the fact that one can write good history without being a trained past master, too many academics shun the challenge of telling a familiar story in a different and better way. Better that one's attention be directed toward the professional craft: specialized research and qualified and defensive writing, designed to show that much homework has been done, no matter that the final product has all the emotion of a sales contract.

Historians with doctorates are reluctant to teach in elementary and secondary schools; on these same levels good history teachers without advanced degrees feel that their concerns are not adequately met by the professional associations; and in universities reduced teaching loads separate the serious scholars from those colleagues consigned to the second-class citizenship of the classroom.

Because the walls separating these various groups are unlikely to come down, perhaps the best advice is for committed teachers to put on their blinders and work to tell a good story in clear prose and meaningful contexts.

Keeping in mind Leo Tolstoy's contention that ``the subject of history is the life of peoples and of humanity,'' such teachers should encourage their students to write their own history -- of their special interests (including rock music or professional sports), their week's activities, and of their families. Writing about that which they know best or wish to learn more can be the first step toward an appreciation of other historical contexts. Such exercises can reveal history as literature as opposed t o science, moving the writer to his own special form of eloquent expression.

``As many as 15 hives of honeybees were kept,'' recalled one of my students of his rural roots, ``to sweeten the jams and jellies, pies and cobblers. Enough wild berries were canned (most years 500 half gallons) for the whole year. Enough grain was raised to keep the family in bread and in feed for the animals. Enough milk was taken from our own cows for butter and `corn bread and milk' which was the main staple of the hill country.''

There is nothing wrong with that kind of history.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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