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Reviving the Significance of History in Education

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Once highly regarded in education, the significance of history has gradually faded from the curriculum's forefront into a subject that has increasingly become marginalized within the public school system. However, this trend has not gone unnoticed, as debates surrounding the study of history have emerged with roots tracing back to the 1930s.

In recent years, history education has faced challenges in maintaining its place in the curriculum. There are textbook and content wars that have many teachers concerned about what is acceptable for the classroom. To better understand these intense times, I spoke with historian of education, Dr. Christopher Berg who has published several studies and books on this very topic. Overall, he suggests rather than removing history and its textbooks from our classrooms, we should adapt how we teach to make it more relevant for today's students.

I think about it like this: I want Indiana Jones to be my history teacher, not the one from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Not only is Indy an expert, but he has the passion that can transfer to student excitement. We need more of that in the classroom.

History vs. Social Studies:

History is not the same as social studies. While history is a part of social studies, the latter is a broader subject encompassing various social sciences. In contrast, history delves deeply into past events and cultures, often incorporating elements of philosophy, religion, and art history.

Why Study History?

Many students wonder why history matters. Dr. Berg's research on undergraduate students' perceptions of history revealed a common belief among students that history had questionable value. Many questioned its relevance to their daily lives and other academic pursuits. However, they recognized the transferable skills gained through studying history, such as critical thinking, research, and the ability to apply historical analogies to current events. "It's not about history repeating itself; it's about people repeating past mistakes," Dr. Berg tells his students.

"It's not about history repeating itself; it's about people repeating past mistakes," Dr. Berg tells his students.

History also helps us understand human experiences across time. We can make better choices today by learning from history.

Textbook Content:

Lies My Teacher Told Me, Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, is one of many books aimed at airing the frustration held in our classroom history textbooks. Dr. Berg's study investigated how textbooks, often considered the backbone of the high school history curriculum, can be riddled with factual errors, misrepresentations, and outdated material. It's essential to acknowledge that this issue isn't new; history education has been grappling with such challenges for a long time.

One significant reason for the turbulence in history education is the presence of various stakeholders with diverse interests. These stakeholders include the political sphere, corporate America, and educators themselves. The competing narratives and interests within these groups often lead to a struggle in shaping history classroom content.

Another source of tension in history education is the ongoing revisionism aimed at making historical narratives more inclusive and representative of the diversity within our country. For some individuals who grew up with a particular historical narrative, the process of revising history can be unsettling, making it challenging for them to accept fundamental changes.

Dr. Berg emphasizes the importance of empathy when considering these issues. Understanding that different perspectives and interests are at play can help us find common ground and compromise. It's essential to recognize that making history more engaging and relevant doesn't necessarily mean erasing traditional content but finding innovative ways to teach it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, Paramount Pictures

Overcoming Barriers:

During our discussion, Dr. Berg made this remark concerning barriers to teaching history, "There's something about the disconnect between how schools approach history at the primary, middle, and secondary grade levels. If this is their [students] only exposure to history, it raises the question: What could we be doing differently to engage these students?" Passive learning can render history dull, but active engagement through hands-on activities, critical thinking exercises, and field trips can bring it to life. Discovery learning also enables students to explore topics that pique their interest.

"There's something about the disconnect between how schools approach history at the primary, middle, and secondary grade levels. If this is their [students] only exposure to history, it raises the question: What could we be doing differently to engage these students?" -Dr. Berg

Dr. Berg recommends teachers focus on their personal professional development. In order to be the expert, you need to live it. Attending conferences, whether national or local, can expose educators to fresh perspectives to bring back to the classroom, deviating from their usual routines. Don't be afraid to reach out to people you admire, such as historians whose work you've read, or individuals you encountered at conferences. Be sure to access museum databases online for primary sources and other enriching activities. Finally, collaborate with colleagues and/or department chairs to distribute the knowledge and workload. Divide and conquer!

Involving Parents in History Education:

What topics did your textbook not cover that you're curious about?

Parents can inspire a love for history by having history books at home, engaging in discussions, and showing enthusiasm for historical topics. History is the lived human experience; it's your experience. Make it come to life by involving your child in everyday history, starting with your own. Parents can also foster engagement by asking questions like, "What topics did your textbook not cover that you're curious about?" When involving children without placing heavy demands on them, they tend to respond with genuine enthusiasm.

The Future of History Education:

In conclusion, history is more than a subject; it's a vital tool for understanding and shaping the future. We should embrace, not endure, history education. Students need passionate teachers equipped with tools to make history exciting. We should move away from focusing on memorization of names and dates to embrace exploration, critical thinking, and genuine engagement. By working together – teachers, parents, and students – we can make history education exciting, relevant, and essential for our children's future success.

To learn more about history in education, you can listen to historian, Dr. Christopher Berg, on The Brighter Side of Education podcast, Timeless Echoes: Embracing the Power of History with Historian Dr. Christopher Berg. Berg discusses his research and writings about the many facets of teaching history in education.

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01 sept 2023

Great post. Dr Berg’s perspective about how History should be taught sounds spot on. I never enjoyed the subject growing up, but now as an adult wished I had more of an understanding of it. If the subject matter was delivered in a more

engaging way and not just memorization, then it may have had more meaning to me for my life today. I look forward to listening to the podcast this week.

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