Implementing Change

By Using Language

Language is central to altering the perceptions that people have about history. I have noticed that a number of my professors have started to address this problem by simply being frank with students about the structure of the classes that they teach.  The rhetoric goes something like

“You do not need to memorize the dates of every single little event that ever happened. The importance of history is to understand why things happened the way that they did, and why those things that happened were important within the larger context of the time period.”

I hope that by educating people that history is not a boringly drawn out chronology, students will become more engaged with the subject. Teachers and other historians need to use and create methods that will get students fired up about learning the past. History seems to be suffering from an issue of audience awareness. Why should we teach history in the same way to people that don’t want to be historians?

If we want to make history into a subject seen with the same level of importance as the STEM programs, we must be aware of our audience, and adapt to what they need to make history interesting and relevant to their own lives. Linda S. Flower is the Professor of Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University, and she articulates the issue of awareness of a writer’s audience in her article “Writing for an Audience.” She claims that “a good piece of writing closes the gap between [the writer] and the reader, ” explaining differences that writer’s must be aware of for effective writing. Historians and history teachers can apply the awareness that Flower articulates in order to foster a greater interest in history as a discipline.

Make it About the Argument

Cutler was able to interview a long time history teacher for his article in The Atlantic, Bruce Lesh. Lesh claims that he doesn’t focus on skills that his students won’t ever need to use. He claims that by teaching students the art of argumentation, he is giving them the skills that they need to advance in life outside of history.

Focus on Relation to Modern Events

Snjezana Koren acknowledges that history is largely centered on political and military actions. It is no wonder why everyday people can’t relate to what is taught in the classroom. Cutler on the other hand speaks of connecting historical content to present issues. By using this technique, students have something to relate their learning to, therefore making history into a subjective and interesting subject.

Use Multimedia

The digital age has brought along with it an opportunity for historians to show that the discipline can grab the attention of people of all ages. Various websites and videos have been produced to make history more accessible and exciting to people of all ages. Below I have linked a few examples of the productions that I am talking about.

  • Digital History
    • Provides an online textbook platform for U.S. History students and educators
  • Crash Course
    • Free videos (10-20 minutes long) that explore various historical sub-disciplines and even other subjects
  • Best of History Sites
    • A database of reliable websites pertaining to certain time periods.

Obviously there is a lot more than these three examples out on the web, but we must recognize that the web is vital for historians to make the discipline into the ideal that Daniels spoke of. If teachers and historians can use these multimedia sites, they can definitely make the discipline appeal to a larger range of people.

So What?

History is seen as being so boring because many of the people passing on their historical knowledge are not in tune with their audience. Freshmen students are not going to take the same interest in a history class that an aspiring historian will take, yet we still teach them in the same way. We can use methods above to help improve how people view history.

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