Fact-Free History

Happy AdministratorThere’s nothing more terrifying than finding out your district administrators have just returned from a conference somewhere, and they’re excited about something. You know because they suddenly smile too much, and now they want to come talk to your department or hold a special faculty meeting. It’s enough to ruin your entire 17-minute lunch period. 

It’s not because their conferences are always in Vegas or Honolulu or Mount Olympus or some such thing, while teacher workshops are in Moore, or at the Pawhuska Technology and Training Center. No, what’s scary is that they come back all excited about some revolutionary new paradigm-shattering approach to teaching – usually a combination of common sense stuff you’ve been doing for years and a few colorful twists slathered in cutesy rhetoric. They’re sure you’ve never heard of it, and that you’ll be so excited for them to share it with you! 

They’d never send you to these sorts of conferences, of course – they’re so far away and expensive, after all. But they think they’ve come upon the Pedagogical Holy Grail – the one which will replace last year’s Silver Classroom Bullet, which superseded the rather durable Brass Teaching Ring, that of course overthrew the Era of Learning Unobtanium (ELU).

So you wait. 

The details vary from revolution to revolution, but the need to unendingly build on the ruins of whatever was going to save us all last year remains sadly the same. It drives the world of educational trainery like dilithium crystals power the Enterprise, or infantile narcissism fuels the President. The same few themes do come back around eventually, however, like the Merry-Go-Round of the Damned, and you learn to look for them. Dread them. Fight them. And yet, the very predictability in the process forms a dysfunctional sort of affection for them after a while. 

Merry-Go-Damned

My personal favorite is the Periodic Awakening of Fact-Free History. 

It’s a Revelation built on a simple truth – one recently discovered by your building principal or curriculum manager or whoever sits before you, eating your bagels this particular Friday morning. “When we were in school,” they always begin, “History was all about memorizing facts – names, dates, places. So many facts.”

Their distress is evident. Damn those facts! And the memorizing of them? Barbaric! Cruel, even. We all pause and reflect on this travesty of our dark past. 

“But history isn’t just names, dates, and places! It’s about… ideas! Causes and effects! Opinions and documents and different ways to interpret them! We shouldn’t be spending so much time on stuff kids could just look up on their phones!”

This point always requires the sharer to hold up their own phone momentarily, as if perhaps the rest of us were unfamiliar with this radical new device. The visual distraction helps blur their subconscious leap from “I hated my history teacher in high school” to “you all teach boring, stupid stuff and you’re ruining the future!”

Cell BoysYou know where it’s going from there. It’s time to do more PBL (Project Based Learning). More STEALHAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Literacy History Athletics Math). More opinions and less reality – because if we teach the way we were taught in the past we’ll create the future we dreaded in our former present! We’re preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet, so we need to light more fires and fill fewer buckets if we’re going to fail forward…

It’s a frightening proposition, this fact-free history – if for no other reason than how difficult it would be to insist that such a thing doesn’t actually prepare students to function in modern society. It might, actually – but that’s not a good thing. 

It has traction because – like most powerful deceptions – it’s mixed with valuable truths, even if they’ve been shaken to the bottom during delivery… Cracker Jack prizes smudged by poison peanuts. We don’t need to memorize names and dates and stats in the manner of centuries gone by in order to be considered fairly enlightened; Google or some variation thereof seems to be here to stay. If Sherlock Holmes is correct and our minds hold a finite amount of information, like that flash drive stamped “Pawhuska TTC” you got for free at your last workshop, it’s probably not a good use of mental space to drill ourselves on who led Confederate forces at Chancellorsville, or chronologically list every Vice President and their state of origin. 

Cracker JackageOn the other hand, it’s a shame to think any civilized young person would be set loose on the world without a pretty good idea of what the Civil War was, roughly when it occurred, and some of the major changes it brought about. It’s unforgiveable if we don’t at least try to ensure that same youth understands the three branches of government and has a general grasp of how each is supposed to work. 

You know – facts. 

As to the sacred teachings of whoever keynoted the Honolulu Retreat, it’s nearly impossible to make a passionate case for something social studies-ish without drawing on those anathematic details – names, dates, etc. “To what extent was slavery the cause of the Civil War?” is certainly a valid debate to have, and opens itself to a wide variety of approaches and responses. An effective argument in any direction, however, inevitably requires substantial background knowledge at one’s proverbial fingertips – a comfortable familiarity with the issue of slavery over the three centuries prior, the dozen or so precursors to the war occurring in the 1850s, the extant documents from various players indicating their values and viewpoints, etc. 

Yes, those things can be “looked up.” No, one needn’t have memorized the details of the Kansas-Nebraska Act or know the precise origins of the “lost cause” mythology in the postbellum South. But neither can you start from scratch and throw something together after a few internet searches – at least not anything viable. Those names, dates, and stats so reviled in our collective memory are the grammar of history, the multiplication tables (or maybe even the numerals) of critiquing culture. They’re not the goal – they never have been. But they’re essential for reaching most worthy goals. They’re often precursors to even defining them. 

Sherlock & WatsonAnd it’s even more essential that we emphasize data and details when addressing contemporary issues. I’m a believer in everyone being entitled to their own opinion, but I’d rather not cement my students’ ignorance by encouraging them to wax emphatic on topics about which they know little. 

“How can the size and expense of the federal government be reduced without compromising our national security?”

“Should parents have more choice in where their children go to school?”

“Did the Russians interfere in our elections on behalf of the Trump campaign? Did Obama ‘tapp’ Trump’s tower?”

“Should businesses be allowed to refuse service to someone if they don’t approve of their lifestyle, their religion, their race, or their politics?”

If you’re sitting around having beer and burgers with friends, you can spout any opinion on any topic you wish – especially if you bought the beer. Anyone who knows me primarily through social media would never believe how receptive and balanced I can be when confronted with the most bizarre opinions or interpretations of current events from my students. 

Moynihan QuoteBut if you’re in an academic setting, on academic time, pursuing academic goals, we should INSIST on statistics, data, experts, and records. We should at least TRY to be precise about names, dates, and other onerous “facts” before spewing our precious individuality about pretty much anything.  

It won’t be perfect. My students are 15, and we’re rather limited as to time and resources. We’re not working on our doctoral theses this semester and none of them are writing books on trends in jurisprudence at the moment. 

But we can at least model the process – we can acknowledge the ideal pursuit of better-expanded versions of our efforts and discuss how they might differ. 

I’m not against "individual learning journeys," and I’m certainly not suggesting we go back to the Trivial Pursuit version of American History, Drill-and-Kill Edition. My little darlings are all individuals with their own experiences, opinions, emotions, and ideals. Kumbaya! 

It's just that most of the stuff worth exploring in history happened to people with names, on dates, in places. It often happened in order. If we’re going to understand it – heck, if we’re going to learn from it, or improve it – we’ll need those pesky facts.

NEXT TIME: Facts-Only History

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