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Monday, June 9, 2014

Why Do I Have to Learn History?

In a recent blog post William Chamberlain, a teacher in Noel Missouri and one of the people who has most influenced how I have organized EDM310 and the person for whom the William Chamberlain Prize for EDM310 Students which is awarded annually by the University of South Alabama is named,asked this question.

His post raises a very important question. Here is what he wrote:

Funny how a little question, only seven words long, can throw one for a loop. I had a student ask me that question an hour ago and I am still reeling from it. I'm reeling because I can't verbalize an answer.

The first thing I did was look online for an answer. Surely somewhere there is a cogent, well reasoned and yet simple answer. If there is one, I didn't find it. Google the question yourself and see what comes up. Better yet search videos using the question, plain horrible. Honestly, I doubt anyone can answer this one for me anyway.

I have always loved history, I have loved the stories that come from history. I love the connections I see between seemingly disparate events. I love recounting stories like Peale's Mastadon because of the connections between art, science, and exploration.

Now I am stuck trying to justify what I teach without any cogent thoughts appearing. Why do they have to learn history?

I hope you will go to his post and read the many comments that have been left. They address Mr. Chamberlain's question in many different ways and are important for any aspiring teacher to consider.

One of those comments was left by me and I am repeating it here so I can be sure all EDM310 students will read his post and my comment. At least I should be able to "be sure" but you never know. Here is my comment and two pictures I took at the time of the event that I recount in my comment.
Student reading at the grave of an American soldier in Normandy, France at the Omaha Beach American cemetery

I'll add a few thoughts. Last March I visited the American Cemetery in Normandy. Around one gravestone a fairly large group had gathered. One person was rubbing sand into the carved out portion of the gravestone so that the name could be read which is difficult to do in sunlight. I later found out the sand was from Omaha Beach which is within walking distance. Another person was reading a statement about Sgt. Grover L. Scroggins from Texas, the person who was buried there. She had obviously contacted relatives and her comments told a great deal about Sgt. Scroggins, an American soldier who had died in the Normandy Invasion seventy years ago. I was moved to tears, as were many of those gathered around. What was going on, I wondered, since it was obvious that those surrounding the grave were Americans. I inquired and found that they were students from an American university near Washington, D.C. who were studying history. Each student had been assigned an American soldier who was buried in the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. Each conducted research and prepared a statement to be read on the field trip the class took to France. The readings were recorded on video and sent to members of the soldier's family. But these students were studying history! Why were they doing this? To learn about what had happened in Normandy 70 years ago. To learn to do research. To learn to write. To learn to make a public presentation which will be shown to a lot of other people. To learn videography. To learn about how people react to the sacrifices of others. To learn the geography of one of the most important events of the last 100 years (or more). To learn to work with others (family members, other students, teachers, residents of France). History is a context for learning that goes way beyond knowing "what happened" and "when and where it happened." I find it hard to imagine a better and more powerful learning experience. History was the context, not the end objective. History should not be taught as a subject which is memorized and then burped back. Instead it should be a vehicle, a context, for active learning that has a public purpose. Just ask the students participating in this learning event. Or the family members who got the videos. Or even those who just happened to walk by and listen in as I did. I certainly learned a lot - about history and about learning!

Maybe these thoughts will help us to understand how history can be a powerful context for learning. I suspect this approach would be equally powerful in any town in America.
American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, France


  1. I have often wondered if the way in which we teach history makes it seem so useless? These words you shared are perhaps a better way. And since this is the game generation, maybe those history games are far more valuable than we realize.

  2. This comment was received from Dr, Charles Connell, Professor of History, Northern Arizona University. He asked that I post it as a comment.

    If you would allow me to recast the question as “Why should you study history?” my response is this: In order to achieve a high level of self-understanding.

    To study the past as a story, a mystery if you will, is to pull together the pieces of a puzzle that begins with simple questions like “Who am I?”and “Where do I fit into my family, my local community, the region, the nation, and finally, the world at large?”. By examining the past accomplishments and failures of other individuals, communities, and nations over time, one comes to understand what history really is – an ongoing dynamic study of human activity in its many dimensions. Human motivation and creativity emerges in the context of challenge and response.

    As your study of history progresses, you learn what interests you and what you value in life. Thus, you achieve a better understanding of yourself which can lead to a more creative and interesting life.

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