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The Teaching and Learning of History

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

"March to Valley Forge" by William Trego

Are you making well-informed decisions in your life? Do you make these decisions after doing careful research and weighing all the facts on the table, or do you let others tell you what to think or believe and just go along for the ride? One requires effort. The other does not. How you answer can have a terrific impact on your quality of life as well as the lives of those around you. I first became aware of this fact in my history classes when I was in college.

As an undergraduate history major, my professors often stressed that our ultimate goal as historians is to present a non-biased, evidence-based version of past events and, when needed, provide commentary or interpretation of those events based on that evidence and not our own personal biases. I recall learning, however, that even by selecting a period, personality, or event to write about, I may be leaning into my own preferences for examining that particular topic. With that understanding in mind, the goal was to limit opinion and stick to providing a complete, clear, concise (or sometimes extensive) portrayal of historical events, removing any lens tinted by a present-day agenda that may distort others’ understanding of the past.

When I do offer an opinion or develop a thesis that may lead to new understanding or new revelation, I was taught to provide thorough documentation to support my position and offer a well-reasoned explanation of that evidence.

Critical thinking was always paramount.

For instance, I have a keen interest in studying the American Revolution. While I have opinions, some strong, about events and leaders of that era, I would be arrogant and narrow-minded to provide you or the students that I taught with a picture of that time painted only with the colors of my own understanding. Instead, I can recognize those opinions, pull them aside, and give you a collection of evidence related to a specific topic that provides well-established facts and wide-ranging commentary from contemporary sources that will allow you to study and draw conclusions for yourself.

I’ll be glad to guide you on a personal exploration of the War for Indepedence and provide you with assistance in that process but at the same time, I will not force my opinions upon you. If you ask, I may give them, but I'll remind you to draw evidence-based conclusions for yourself.

My goal is to educate, not indoctrinate.

Indoctrination is to teach others to accept beliefs uncritically. It involves letting others think for you. At its worst, it actively and brutally suppresses any thought or anyone that comes against what is being offered up or promoted as the truth. It produces passive subjects and not active participants. It speaks with moral authority and demands unquestioned adherence to those morals and no others. For the complacent and easily distracted, it provides a path of least resistance and requires little work. “Just tell me what I need to know.”

As a history teacher, my goal is not to require you to memorize a litany of facts, it’s to teach you to think for yourself through research, through questioning, through close reading of text, through careful examination of primary sources, all within the framework of exploring the great, and even mundane, stories of the past. And with the telling of each story, determine what powerful lessons can be learned that will improve our own lives and those of generations to come. As Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Orwell recognized the importance of remembering and understanding history and powerfully portrays its significance in his landmark work, “1984.” In the book, the Party controls all aspects of life. That control begins with the Ministry of Truth.

“‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

The Ministry of Truth told the world what to believe, and they did so, without question. The people forgot who they were and the result was bleak.

As a teacher, may I never assume the role of the Ministry of Truth. As a citizen, may I never allow those with power similar to that Ministry unquestionably control my views of the past, present, or future.

May we continue to be a free-thinking people who wrestles with Truth, who ardently seeks it out for ourselves and do the work of research and analysis from a variety of sources, and not listen only to those that are our favorites…that reveals our personal biases and can easily lead to closed-mindedness. As I was taught by my professors and passed along to my own students, may we always be open to examine all points of view, from all voices, not only those of our own political, ethnic, racial, or religious persuasion.

From history, and one of the greatest teachers of all time, we’ve learned the lesson that a house divided against itself cannot stand. You’ll never see the cracks if you never open your eyes, and you’ll never find their cause unless you search for it yourself. And most importantly, it will never be repaired without a lot of hard work. It’s up to you and me to decide if the house is worth saving and what role we will play in doing so.

In my history classes, I typically opened with a quote that we’d discuss. In this case, I’d like to end with one from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in….”

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