Rethinking how we learn our history

By Cameron Smith

(Erica Lowenkron/Daily Collegian)

There is something missing from the way many teach and learn history. Due to an all too common lack of emotion in the way it is taught, history is often thought as a brutally boring subject. We all have been exposed to the classroom setting of an insufferable history teacher. The kind that stands at the front of the room, with a picture-less PowerPoint, rattling off dates and names. The passion is lacking in classes like these.

While learning about World War I in my U.S. History course, I decided to read “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Remarque. The novel’s gruesome and detailed descriptions of war put a pit in my stomach. It exposed me to the human aspects of war. I felt connected to both the characters’ moments of joy and moments of depression. But what it made me realize is that, oftentimes, I feel no emotional attachment to the events that preceded my time. History fades into a forgotten memory; learning it becomes more of a hassle than a human responsibility.

When learning about the war, along with the aid of the novel, I began to pay attention to the root causes of the war that killed so many. There was now a connection between the politics of war and what happened to the average person during the same time.

Dr. Julie de Chantal, a history lecturer at UMass, emphasizes the importance of historical empathy. Historical empathy is remembering that these are the real actions and emotions of people from the past. When we limit history to dates and names, we are forgetting the humanity of these people. Remembering this can aid us in understanding the past, present and future.

So how can we make learning history better? This task does not just fall on the teacher or the professor. It needs to also be the responsibility of students to find their own way of being captivated by the past.

Obviously, it is impossible to cover every aspect of human history and cover every fact. However, it is important to have reasoning for why certain aspects of history make it into a textbook, lecture, film or discussion and others do not. Great moments of learning about the past can include lectures aided by a novel or a movie. The text may not be completely factual, but it creates an emotional attachment to the actual events. When the attachment is made, we can then see the relevance to our own world. It is one thing to learn how many were killed during the Holocaust, but it is especially personal when watching a depiction of death camps or read an Elie Wiesel novel.

If history is more captivating when connected to emotions and humanity, then why do we often forget to incorporate it into classes? As Bill Harris notes in his analysis of historical empathy, “High stakes testing to meet No Child Left Behind goals also promotes the tendency for teachers to teach specific facts and personages without delving into such important subjects as causality and long-term effects of historical actions.” It seems that trying to meet a national curriculum standard is detrimental to empathizing with the past. Facts are important, but memorization is not as helpful. The information needs to be placed in a real-world context to understand what information we can use to uncover the context of the past.

If we do not make an attempt to connect to our historical roots then we really do become susceptible to making similar mistakes over time. Groups, such as modern Neo-Nazis, detach themselves from the historical facts entirely. They thrive on ignoring error made in the past.

If we can create a connection between history lessons and current events then we can aim to improve ourselves. The idea that my peers have no interest in learning history is concerning. Just like how we aim to improve our lives based on past experiences, society adapts from events of the past. We need to treat history differently. Rather than just learning about it, we need to connect to it and appreciate its relevance to our world.

Cameron Smith is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]