The teaching of history is something that is generally done so poorly that, by the end of the year, a parent is almost ready to buy into the notion that it might just as well not be taught at all.
Fortunately, sanity still prevails, for my view of history is that, far from Henry Ford’s dismissal of the whole thing as “bunk”, history is one of the essential pieces of the curriculum.
It does, however, need to be taught to engage students, not to cram “facts” into them.
When I entered Grade 9, way back in 1967, and walked into my history classroom (“British History 1066-1901” was the agenda for Grade 9 at that time in Ontario) there was, at first, no teacher in the room. We are all sitting when in he comes.
I shall never forget my first sight of Rudi Heydeloff as he strode into the classroom. He sat at the front and made a very provocative statement, one that bordered on moral heresy in the world of the second half of the 20th century.
This was his way of seeing if anyone would respond. I did, disagreeing fully with his statement.
He then sat at his desk, and said “well, I happen to think so, too, but prove your answer”.
For the rest of the period we sparred in debate, both of us (him easily, me with difficulty and with the occasional nudge from him to think about something) citing historical occasions and events and the thought of various world figures, me to support my position and he to provide the foil of defending his original statement.
At the end of the class he said, to all, “history is not about names and dates, but neither is it about only seeing the socially approved side of things. In my class, we are going to try to see the world as the people of Great Britain saw it, century after century, in context. We’re not here to judge them for not being ‘up to date’, or ‘liberal enough’, or ‘liberated’. If we can try to see their time as they might have experienced it, then we are doing our part to realize that the world has never been the way it is now before, and it never will be again”.
That the class did not spring into spontaneous applause at this stirring little speech (which I have tried, after all these years, to recall as clearly and accurately as possible) but instead left muttering about whether or not Rudi Heydeloff was qualified to teach — I think a forty minute impromptu debate had somewhat scared them off! — reminds me of my own experience, years later in 1993-94, as an adjunct professor in the University of Toronto’s Management Faculty, and having 40% of my class complain to the Dean because I set them two essay questions as a final examination rather than the multiple choice types everyone else was using! Difference is alienating.
I mention Dr. Heydeloff — he earned his doctorate while teaching, and alas, at far too young an age passed away — because, as his memorial at my old high school’s website shows , people did get over themselves and find out just how much more was being offered than either the traditional way of teaching history — lists of kings/presidents, lists of key dates, lists of wars and battles, etc. — or the “modern” way of seeing the world through a cause or political philosophy, be it the period in which pseudo-Marxist interpretation ruled, or the period in which everything was judged according to how liberal a society appeared to be, or through the eyes of the feminist movement alone, etc.
Dr. Heydeloff taught us the key dates and places — he wanted us to instantly know what was meant by a transition point marked by a date or figure — he taught us to think about the same events through different prisms, by forcing us to study these frameworks of interpretation and write assignments through those lenses — and he also worked very, very hard to make us understand that these weren’t impoverished people in the sense of just not being able to go to a shop and buy what you wanted, but that there really was something different about barons setting their own differences aside and disciplining a monarch, thus creating an opening for liberty for all to begin to emerge (Magna Carta, and I have never felt so connected to my high school history years as the day I went to the UK headquarters for the company I worked for in 1994-99 and discovered I was but a 10 minute walk from the Field of Runnymede, which is on the one hand just a field beside a busy highway but which is also magical thanks to a day in a classroom in Scarborough, Ontario) and that that made the lives of John Bloggs and Katie Blow in their hovel on the lands of the Duke of Berkshire a little more pregnant with possibility — possibilities that would become actual sooner than elsewhere in Europe — even though they remained poor and without a voice for centuries yet by our standards.
This is the power of really teaching history in the school.
Dr. Heydeloff — who would think nothing of throwing out a statement such as “Hitler was right”, or “Stalin was right”, or “FDR was wrong” — or their opposites — or “women should be kept out of schools” or “it’s time men were banned from positions of authority” — to stimulate thinking and questioning — believed his job was not to dispense conventional wisdom but to throw it into doubt.
His job was not to turn out perfectly-adjusted test passers — I don’t think there was ever an assignment or test in his class where I felt comfortable that I would pass it, despite earned “A” after “A” on prior work; he was always raising the bar to see how far you could go (even while remaining within a constant and critical marking scheme) — but to turn out citizens able to judge their world and strike that on-going balance between tradition and change that every society needs.
I never thought to ask him while he was alive — not even when I returned to the school to congratulate him on receiving his Ph.D. shortly before he died — if he’d ever read Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where Heinlein says the one mandatory course in high school in his story is History and Moral Philosophy. But that’s what Rudi Heydeloff taught.
As I discovered in practice in 2005, even elementary students are capable of making distinctions and forging arguments that go beyond the mere repeating of slogans and clichés (this is when I taught philosophy at an elementary school).
In other words, right from the beginning, we could teach history as the story of humankind, and do so in a set of contexts that promote the kind of independent evaluation our societies needs its citizens to have.
So why don’t we?
We don’t need to change the curriculum (there are other reasons to do that, but not for this); we wouldn’t even need to teach differently to prepare for provincial examinations (the students would be more than prepared because they could reconstruct their arguments on the spot rather than having to revise and study to try and hold them in short-term memory on test day).
We just need teachers with the inspiration to risk so much for their students — and the will to press the limits of “the ordinary”.