Eric Foner, a distinguished historian of the Reconstruction-era of the United States, makes a terrific point in an interview with David Cutler at The Atlantic. (My apologies if the title of the article is his takeaway point: “‘You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It.’” ) To wit, Foner says:
I tell my students nowadays who are in graduate school and going on to become teachers—the number one thing is to have a real passion for your subject and to be able to convey that to your students. Obviously the content is important, but that’s not as unusual as being able to really convey why you think history is important. I think that’s what inspires students.
In a follow-up question, Foner explains this in terms of the deficits in historical education he sees at the high school level:
The first thing I would say is that we have to get away from the idea that any old person can teach history. A lot of the history teachers in this country are actually athletic coaches. I mention this in class, and students always say, “Oh yeah, Coach Smith, he taught my history course.” Why? Well, Coach Smith is the football coach, and in the spring he’s not doing much, and they say, “Well, put him in the history course, he can do that.”
They wouldn’t put him in a French course, or a physics course. The number-one thing is, you have to know history to actually teach it. That seems like an obvious point, but sometimes it’s ignored in schools. Even more than that, I think it’s important that people who are teaching history do have training in history. A lot of times people have education degrees, which have not actually provided them with a lot of training in the subject.
This is only a problem when you work in a profession and write in a genre that is so open to amateurism. The upside is that our publishers imagine that there’s a broader audience for our books; I heard someone last week quote Jim Grossman of the American Historical Association as saying, “there’s no such thing as the Anthropology Channel, but there is a History Channel.” The downside is that most of the public doesn’t really want to buy or read what we professional historians are selling. (See Anchorman II with Ron Burgundy for more insight into this problem: “why do we have to tell people what they need to hear? Why can’t the news [or history] be fun?”)
Foner is right: you have to know French to teach French. You have to know something about science and math to teach them effectively, and that professional training is recognized not just as a nice thing for teachers to have but as a necessity by the principals, superintendents, and school boards who staff our secondary schools. History expertise? Not so much.
I remain grateful to my high school history teachers, both of whom had master’s degrees–or at least took graduate courses in history in the summers–and who talked about their master’s-level coursework in class with us. One of them, William (Bill) Hill of Sylvania Southview High School, was clearly extraordinarily passionate about his subject, American history. He was in many respects very different from me: he was a huge Civil War freak, and I resent most of the nineteenth century. He was such an Abraham Lincoln fan that he not only delighted in passing along scandalous gossip about Southern politicians and generals, he even repeatedly gave us slanderous and inaccurate information about Mary Todd Lincoln. At least as of the mid-1980s, he didn’t have a lot else to say about women’s history–in fact, he caricatured me one day in class (affectionately, I’d like to believe) by waving his hand above his head and shrieking, “what about the women? What about the women?” But Mr. Hill loved his subject, he knew a great deal about it, and he shared his excitement with his students.
I honestly don’t think it mattered to him whether or not we loved it–he was having a great time, and that was a memorable lesson in itself.
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