Why Is History Education so Uncomprehensive?

What I really mean by this question is: why does it [history classes] suck? They only cover the ‘important’ events, and even those with a broad, unpersonal brush! It’s not only ineffective at teaching history, but it also makes it horribly boring!!! I never had much interest in historical happenings until I began self-educating and discovered that not only is history interesting and full of lessons, but that all the people in history were so much more interesting than their achievements! Is it not more useful to understand these people rather than simply focus on their accomplishments? History education comes across as very impersonal and makes history itself seem bland, and that seems like an enormous intellectual crime…

So, why glaze over everything and avoid all the juicy bits and connections between all these people?

I think a general problem is people have a vested interest in history and they want the “correct” history presented. Once you get done eliminating anything that no pressure group would object to, what you’re left with is the blandest possible version of history.

We do that on purpose, to hide things from you.

If history is boring, you had lousy teachers.

There’s too much of it. It’s one of the few things we keep making more of.

Until you get to the college or even graduate level and you can focus in on a narrow little chunk of time, there’s just too much.

My theory is that learning history starts out boring and gets more interesting the more you learn. This is because learning a bunch of names and dates and events only starts becoming meaningful once you have enough other names and dates and events to relate them to and connect them with and see how they all fit together.

For example, to someone who already has a substantial amount of historical knowledge, knowing the date something happened tells you a lot: it happened after such and such other events, but before such and such other events, and at about the same time as such and such other things were going on, during the times when such and such people were living and working… To someone without much historical knowledge, a date is just a number.

And how many good TV history programs are kid-friendly? How many historical dramas are sufficiently historically accurate?

Speaking as a high school World History teacher, my biggest problem is time! When you have to cover 5000 years on 6 continents in a few months, you just can’t do more than scratch the surface of any interesting or important topic.

This is probably better suited to IMHO than GQ.

General Questions Moderator

Sure, that’s interesting, but how much can we truly “understand” people from the past whom we’ve never met, in a way that is truly “useful”? Whatever information we have is an interpretation–a narrative authored by someone else–and, as such, is, for all practical purposes, a fiction. Fiction is great, but let’s recognize it for what it is, and realize that if history tried to do the same thing it would go around in circles forever and never accomplish its purpose.

Kids are really dumb. You were dumb, too. I was dumb. We all get over it. I teach in a really fantastic high school. Nationally ranked, SAT average well over 90%, all that. I teach bright, motivated students. But you would not believe the things they do not know, nor would you believe how much effort it takes to get an idea into their heads.

You are remembering high school with a much bigger brain than you actually had. Everyone has memories of the teacher explaining things that were totally obvious and a waste of time. What they don’t remember were the SEVEN previous times that same thing was explained and went right over their heads, leaving so little impression that they have no memory of it occurring. And then when the teacher has to explain it a ninth time for little Johnny, they wonder why he’s dense, he needs it explained twice.

You might as well ask why teachers don’t start with calculus, because that’s when math gets interesting. That’s not entirely untrue, but young brains aren’t ready for it. Five years ago, I taught Freshmen for the first time. You wouldn’t believe how dumb they were. They would spend 90 minutes writing a one-page essay, and then ask to stay after school to finish it. I’d give them 30 minutes to read Animal Farm silently, and they’d be 10 pages in. I’d ask them to write a thematic statement from the ideas expressed in 'The Giving Tree" and they’d come back with “Trees and Humans can be friends”. Today, no lie, those kids are at MIT and Harvard and Stanford and Yale and Columbia. Every damn one of them is in a four year college. And they are legit brilliant. But a legit brilliant 14 year old is still dumber than an average 20 year old.

Have you ever watched 4-year old t-ball? The ENTIRE SEASON is about 1) run after you hit the ball and 2) throw the ball to first if you are fielding. It literally takes about 8 weeks to get a group of 4-5 year olds to remember those two things on anything like a consistent basis–and they don’t have to remember them at the same time. Teaching is exactly like that, all of the time. It’s the best job on earth and I love it to death.

To each his own. My favorite classes were history. Of course, I found the college history courses more in depth than in high school, but there’s so much history that has passed and only a limited time to teach it in.

This. So much this. Up until my Sophomore year in High Scholl, history was just memorizing names-and-dates, of “Columbus-Sailed-The-Sea-Deep-Blue-In-Fourteen-Hundred-Ninety-Two.”

Mr. Terry Osia, my World History teacher, taught history more as a process, of events and discoveries, people and personalities, that changed how people did things, how they thought, and how that in turn led to the next series of events and happenings, important “game-changing” people and discoveries.

And he delved into the “interconnectedness” of it all, too, a kind of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic History Lesson(s)” approach, the "Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of it all.
Made history so much more interesting.

Yeah, that’s my take on it. That plus the mentioned bit about needing to know the basics to build up on it. And, heck, the United States is a relatively young nation (and history classes skim over pre-Columbian stuff) – I can’t imagine what it’s like teaching British history at the elementary level or some other nation with an extra thousand years of recorded history behind it.

As said, it gets better in college where history classes are more narrowly focused.

Part of the reason is that if you want to teach history, then you need to get beyond facts, to get to the techniques that allow you to string together the facts into meaningful stories about the past, or reflections for the present.

I love [British TV series] Horri ble Histories - I think it’s the best ever engagement for young kids with history, but it is still essentially a series of costumed comedy skits - and without having learned any of the ways you connect them meaningfully, my niece and nephew can only appreciate them as a succession of [yes, brilliant] fart jokes.

An analogy with science might be that making smells and explosions in the school lab remain only that unless you introduce the underpinning laws and knowledge that makes them demonstrative of broader principles.

I learned more real history from Will Cuppy’s wonderful book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody than I did in school. Great humour but accurate facts.

What British kids learn about history is shaped by what the exams they are heading for will ask questions on. Back in a time which is now being taught as history, I learned a great deal about the industrial revolution, because my “O” levels were built around that period. 50 years later, my daughter concentrated on the Napoleonic wars.

One great advance has been the way in which museums and stately home tours now place much more emphasis on ‘ordinary’ people than on the nobility. On TV recently someone from a house that was open to the public said that the kitchens, where they did live demonstrations, were the most popular part of the tours.

In today’s interactive world, it has become less important to learn in which order HenryVIII married and disposed of his wives and more important to understand the changes that came about when he took England away from the Catholic Church and broke up the monasteries. I guess we are fortunate here in that we can take our children to places like Fountain’s Abbey to see some of what he did, and to Canterbury Cathedral to see the exact spot where Thomas Beckett was murdered. We also have some excellent places where big chunks of the industrial revolution have been preserved, like Blists Hill at Ironbridge and The Black Country Museum. It’s one thing to read about miners, stripped to the waist and using a pickaxe to dig coal from hundreds of feet underground - it’s another to go to an old coal mine and actually see how it was.

In every country, not just this one, history is taught as a bunch of highly selective anecdotes that glorify the motherland. If there is anything to connect the anecdotes, it is tenuous and maybe spurious.,

History is one of the most important things on earth. However…
Some countries, like the US or Peru, do not have an interesting history — even if one confines oneself to the last 400 years so as not to be unfair to them — compared to the rich store of other countries such as France, Morocco, Japan, Austria or Russia. Just as with art and culture, it is silly to expect them to compete. It’s just a bunch of old men debating in sterile chambers.
Like Paraguay, one big war in the middle of the 19th century and some brave exploration, and that’s it. America’s forte is Entertainment, not interesting stuff ( and that’s nothing to despise ). And America distrusts great men.

Along with degeneration into gender whining and complaints about statism and welfare goes a creeping ignobility. Few people can appreciate an Alcibiades of Greece, a Charles I of England, a Scipio the Elder of Rome, and nor should they: such are not for them.
Few curriculums or syllabuses can encompass the grand sweep, from the birth at Sumer through the greatest Empire, that of Persia, to Rome to Mediaevals to now, like a Pirenne or a Spengler, or a Durant. And any such enterprise is regarded with suspicion.

The most important aspect is that teaching of history is subservient to political imperatives — rather as religious doctrine is — and the Whig Interpretation of History as exemplified by Tommy Macaulay still holds sway, with it’s teleological determination of progress [ as as in that 19th century Liberal’s revelation that all of human endeavour was there to culminate in 19th century Liberals ], however mutated into the End Result being ‘The Triumph of DEMOCRAYCRAY !’, whether defined as Novo Sovieticus, The Common Man, or whatever the hell those creatures out there are.

Depends which version of history has the best lobbyists.

But it’s easier to test whether students know the order of Henry’s wives than whether they understand the changes. Which partly explains, but does not excuse, why history is often taught the way it is.