Want history to come alive? Take students to the source
WHITMAN, MASS. — How is it that so many people think high school history is boring? There are dull people, but history? Never! It can't be dull, because, as it emerges from the collective memory, it offers us access to the great human panorama.
Taught well, therefore, students should be led to and from it fascinated, if not inspired.
When I teach, I inform my "clients" that there will be hard work and a certain amount of tedium. "Deal with it!" I tell them. They'll write, discuss, and think productively. They'll engage the subject matter actively, and discover that it's my pleasure to invest in them unconditionally. There will be lots of classwork, projects, and homework. It won't be long, however, before they'll know that I care, and that I'm passionately involved with the past.
Over the years, most kids seem to have willingly "bought" my product. There are ways to quantify classroom failure and success, of course, to measure learning the way one counts turnips. That being so, I m not sure which of my magic bullets contributes most to academic production. I know, however, that an unwritten - and genuinely personal - contract of expectations can work wonders. Manifest within that contract is the fact that my most abiding affection and concern is reserved for each student. Oddly enough, students usually respond in kind; and, if you want to guarantee instructional meltdown on any given day, try faking this posture among adolescents.
What, then, must a teacher do so that his course will never be compared to cheap anesthesia?
In teaching European History, my first demand is that students be prepared to "go there," to cultivate empathy and a historical imagination. They write for a 17th-century newspaper, role-play an Enlightenment salon, and bring Kaiser Wilhelm II before an international court. Luther will interrupt our discussion of the Reformation, and both Tom Paine and Edmund Burke will pay us a visit when their time comes.
A midwinter talk show will attract grand duchesses and barricade fighters. Ivan the Terrible, Metternich, and Yevtushenko will stop by, as Bach did last year - with a violin, no less.
As the year moves on, the students will stand in the light of Thomas More's integrity as he faces down a sullen king. They'll measure Newton's genius, stroll Imperial Vienna by gaslight, and peer over VanGogh's shoulder as he wonders at the sorcery of color.
In lectures, discussions, and debates, I'll put them all with Louis Blanc by the gates of a 19th-century factory at 5:30 a.m. as the children troop in, heavy-eyed and in poor health. I'll send them in bunches on the Trans-Siberian, over broad David Lean-stretches of Russia. They'll look Bismarck in the eye, and not blink. The same for Clemenceau and Margaret Thatcher. They'll follow the young Churchill from Omdurman, watching as age shapes his intelligence and the textures of his character.
By spring, as they move across the moral debris of our own century, each will stand under the gate at Auschwitz to ask a hundred thousand young mothers about the persistence of evil. In the end, having rubbed up against the great drama that is history, they'll know that nothing could be more relevant - or more engaging.
* Robert A. Cole is curriculum coordinator for history and social studies at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School in Whitman, Mass.