Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

May 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SDRAWKCAB YROTSIH GNIHCAET....Via MoJoBlog, The Progressive has a story this week about Michael Baker, a high school teacher in Lincoln, Nebraska, who was let go after showing the HBO documentary "Baghdad ER" to his geography class. Stupid. But that's not what caught my eye. Extremely longtime readers may recall that I once suggested that history could be made more interesting to high school students if it were taught backwards (see here), and it turns out Baker was doing exactly that. His school district didn't think much of that experiment either:

Baker has clashed with administrators before. In 2005, they objected to his innovative approach to teaching history, which was to start at the present and work backwards, an approach he'd been using for four years.

But then, the school district forbade him from teaching that way any longer. The school's consultant said it was "not logical, does not contribute to effective teaching or monitoring of progress, and puts students at a disadvantage" with newly instituted statewide tests, according to a paper on the subject by Professor Nancy Patterson of Bowling Green. Baker appealed but lost, and was eventually "prohibited from teaching U.S. history," Patterson writes.

Hmmph. It still seems like a decent idea to me, though: current events are intrinsically interesting, and learning about them make you genuinely curious about why the world ended up the way it did. If the lessons are structured with curiosity about causes in mind, this will make you interested in the Cold War, which in turn makes you interested in World War II, which in turn makes you interested in the Great Depression, etc. It's a solution to the most obvious problem of teaching history: without any context, why should a 16-year-old care about dusty topics like the Missouri Compromise or the rise of the labor movement?

Oh well. I suppose the amazing thing is that they let him teach this way for four years before they shut him down. He was probably a communist, after all.

Kevin Drum 9:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

[banned commenter. content deleted.]

Posted by: Lurker on May 12, 2007 at 11:07 PM | PERMALINK

If only I could get my son's middle school to teach history creatively and math traditionally, but they have it horribly backwards.

Posted by: mirror on May 12, 2007 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

My biggest gripe with my history education is that we spent so much time on the Founding Era, the Civil War, and WW2, that we ran out of time before we got to things like the Civil Rights Era, Vietnam, the Cold War, etc. So this strike me as an interesting idea.

Posted by: Greg on May 12, 2007 at 11:20 PM | PERMALINK

You never make it to present when you're teaching a traditional history course anyhow. It should be possible to try some innovative approaches and do some roundtables with the faculty about how well it's working and what sort of feedback they're getting from students and what further changes they want to make for the following year, etc., etc., pursuing iterative loops until you find something that seems to work pretty well.

But apparently not . . .

Posted by: Delia on May 12, 2007 at 11:24 PM | PERMALINK

I don't see how the kids are going to learn the test unless you teach for the test.

Posted by: absent observer on May 12, 2007 at 11:32 PM | PERMALINK

My biggest gripe with my history education is that we spent so much time on the Founding Era, the Civil War, and WW2, that we ran out of time before we got to things like the Civil Rights Era, Vietnam, the Cold War, etc. So this strike me as an interesting idea.

Every history class does this, the effect is to detach history from reality.

Posted by: Boronx on May 12, 2007 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

I had one history teacher in Highschool who made a point of getting to the present, we even covered Iran-Contra. It was an eye opener.

Posted by: Boronx on May 12, 2007 at 11:35 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with teaching history backwards is that it is nonsensical.

The way Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Gonzales, etc. behaved today did not come from nothing, not out of a vacuum.

And, particularly where you know where the misconceptions came from, how do you put it in a framework.

E.g., how to teach WWII without knowing WWI, the League of Nations, Versailles Treaty, Naval treaty, etc., or US-Russian now without knowing WWII, Cuba crisis, arms limitation, red scare, Egypt, Libya, Israeli wars, etc., or the battle of Agincourt (1415) without knowing about the progression of the 100 years war, Poitiers, Normandy and Burgundy, or the Norman Invasion of Britain (1066).

Teaching history backwards is a faddish, cute idea with NO value.

esnes sekam sith knith stoidi tsuJ.

Posted by: notthere on May 12, 2007 at 11:35 PM | PERMALINK

Baker's firing shows a couple things.

First, modern education is structured more toward programming our children to pass these idiotic standardized tests than cultivating their critical and analytical faculties, which connects to...

Second, there is a vast, pervasive conspiracy in this country to disassociate the present from any historical context. It's called mainstream American journalism...

Posted by: smedleybutler on May 12, 2007 at 11:37 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with history is that every day there's more of it.

Posted by: Spirit on May 12, 2007 at 11:38 PM | PERMALINK

I don't care how they teach history just so long as they don't teach evolution....

Posted by: Disputo on May 12, 2007 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

"If only there was some sort of way that parents could send their children to a school that would be willing to try new ways to let students learn, and allow them to see things like Baghdad ER. Some sort of mechanism to transfer their tax dollars to a system less dysfunctional than our public school system. A kind of voucher, if you will."

We call it learning at home and my kids are doing fine with history. Between the library, bookstores, museums, talking to people from all walks of life, videos and TV, they're learning more about current events and the past than they ever did in school. And they're learning it because they want to know about it, not to pass a test, although they do fine on their end of year evaluations.

Lill

Posted by: Lill Hawkins on May 12, 2007 at 11:40 PM | PERMALINK

[banned commenter. content deleted.]

Posted by: Lurker on May 12, 2007 at 11:44 PM | PERMALINK

esnes sekam sith knith stoidi tsuJ.

Is "th" now its own letter?

Posted by: absent knitpick on May 12, 2007 at 11:45 PM | PERMALINK

history is so irrelevant. it's not like race, to take one example, was ever an issue in this country in 1776 or 1865 or 1965. or that world war I or II had any influence on what the world is like now. the crusades? ancient history. the british experience in iraq 80 some years ago has anything to teach us? preposterous. or that knowing the history between china and vietnam might have had some impact on 55,000 american lives? you're kidding me right?

i once had a conversation with a friend who mentioned she once lived in selma, ala. instead of mentioning the march, figuring anyone halfway educated should know about it, i mentioned the civil war battle fought there. she reacted like i was some kind of neanderthal and immediately brought up the march. but without the battle and the circumstances that led to it 100 years earlier, there would have been no march.

history is taught as if it's dead. it's not. perhaps teaching it backwards, or some reasonable hybrid that connects past and present, might put some life into it.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on May 12, 2007 at 11:47 PM | PERMALINK

There must be a cultural disconnect here.

Surely all teaching has to show relevance to today otherwise the pupil will lack interest. This is true for mathematics, biology, english lilterature, or history. One of the smartest ways of teaching is making the students feel included, contributive and critical, self and externally.

We had history and we current affairs. Those who knew history could contribute more to the current affairs. I don't think I ever learned about WWI or anything after in history, but I'd read quite a bit. In current affairs we dealt with the turbulent years of the 60s and early 70s in the context of the turbulence of the industrial revolution, slavery, etc., and earlier civil strife.

Overall, schools and teachers have to be more imaginative and flexible. Exactly what we are stopping them from being.

Posted by: notthere on May 12, 2007 at 11:55 PM | PERMALINK

Is "th" now its own letter?

Posted by: absent knitpick on May 12, 2007 at 11:45 PM | PERMALINK

You know, I found typing backwards extremely difficult. I re-read that 3 or 4 times but you probably know that test where they jumble the letters in words within a sentence and people have like 95% understanding at almost normal reading speeds.

But, just nitpicking, the real phrase comes from picking nits out of hair, not picking out knitting.

Posted by: notthere on May 13, 2007 at 12:01 AM | PERMALINK

Mudwall Jackson, that's really smart. ("history is taught as if it's dead.")

And Kevin, teaching history as Mr Baker did is brilliant. I can't believe it's an idea I havn't heard of before. One would think an idea like this would have enough backing as to be an inevitability because it seems so obviously right.

Posted by: A different matt on May 13, 2007 at 12:08 AM | PERMALINK

That is an awesome idea!

I've been doing that myself, without realizing it. I've made it as far back as 1830s-1870s-ish now. I'm also reading up on Iran-Contra.

Posted by: chris on May 13, 2007 at 12:16 AM | PERMALINK

Admittedly my history education up until high school (1989) was pretty lame. We never got past the merchant age in World History or past the mid-19th century in American history. (I even had an 8th grade history teacher that SPECIFICALLY assigned a major paper regarding an event after or person of around WWII or after -- because he knew he'd never get that far -- I chose Stalin, btw. And still ended up a pinko commie liberal.)

But in high school, I had several different ways to experience history. Model U.N. (being a club) probably helped the most, but during my junior and senior years we had quarter long electives that you could mix and match. I chose Conflict (a history of American wars) and Modern America (history of the U.S. since Vietnam). We also had (a Illinois requirement) a Civics class -- all Illinois students are required to take and pass exams on the Illinois and U.S. constitutions before graduating. The Illinois constitution (the 4th, I believe) was written in the 1960s and is not nearly as elegant as the U.S. constitution -- so that was sort of a bitch. Perhaps things have gone down in the years since then, but one example of some school district in BFE does not a good example make. And it's certainly not the reason to dismantle the system of public education on which our democracy and our economic system have been built. In fact, I think there should be a tax on those that send their kids to private schools that would fund the public schools -- since they've chosen to remove themselves from the system and therefore make the system less fair, but that's me (see pinko commie liberal.)

Posted by: DC1974 on May 13, 2007 at 12:22 AM | PERMALINK

What scares me about this is, despite that it happened in Nebraska, which might seem like BFE to a lot of people, Nebraska has, cough, historically been a very good state for enlightened public education. That trend seems to be waning.

Posted by: Urban Pink on May 13, 2007 at 12:29 AM | PERMALINK

Wasn't "th" its own letter back in Old English? Damn, if you're going to start at the start it makes your answer even slier.

Posted by: Mo MacArbie on May 13, 2007 at 12:45 AM | PERMALINK

I've been standing back a bit from this debate. My sisters think I am a rampant capitalist and some USians think I'm an unreconciable socialist. That's how far US politics has strayed from Euro politics.

Here are the facts. The teacher showed a topical, political, current affairs movie in a geography class. Obviously never cleared it with the school. Why and why?

History? Vietnam: No! WWII: No! Why? There are still people alive and it is still under open debate. Even WWI I almost put at the extreme. The Great Depression: No! They are really still current affairs, "living" history if you like, and definitely part of present day memory and impinging on debate through experience.

So I take issue with what some here say is history. You define it! Not just "anything in the past". That is so simplisticly inaccurate.

Second, maybe I was lucky, but all my early history teachers made it interesting. That early history is like super-hero, mythological stuff with social issues that are pertinent today, and their decisions run through to today. I just don't see how you could make history uninteresting.

Then, I never attended a US school.

Posted by: notthere on May 13, 2007 at 1:09 AM | PERMALINK

"reconcilable" and "simplistically"

I should reread.

Posted by: notthere on May 13, 2007 at 1:14 AM | PERMALINK

In 1972 my Yale-educated high school American history teacher taught history "backwards."

Gosh, 1972 wouldn't even come up until three weeks into the course now. I'm getting old.

I still remember one of the bonus questions on an exam: "Who was Tench Cox?"

Posted by: pj in jesusland on May 13, 2007 at 1:46 AM | PERMALINK

There's a lot of bloviating in this thread about how well teaching history backwards might work.

In the end, there's no way to evaluate the efficacy of teaching history backwards other than to test how much is learned at the end of the day. It's really an empirical matter.

A very good portion of effective teaching is simply finding a method to sustain interest. It's at least plausible that doing so backwards, making the exercise one of solving a kind of mystery, could achieve that effect.

It would useful to see how well the students in the backwards history class actually fared on the relevant tests of the material.

Posted by: frankly0 on May 13, 2007 at 1:55 AM | PERMALINK

Exactly!

Who the hell is Tench Cox?

Case proven!

Posted by: notthere on May 13, 2007 at 1:58 AM | PERMALINK

I would like to read Professor Patterson's paper decrying the approach. I can't imagine what her evidence is for her claims. Being that she is in a school of education, probably there is no evidence other than tradition. Schools of education are horrible places for intellectual breakthroughs and creative thought. I should know. I work in one.

Context is everything in learning. Starting from a contemporary problem, frankly, is how much history is produced by historians.

I am not sure why this approach would impact the end of the year state test, either. After all, one should have equal "coverage," if that is the intent (and it shouldn't be), no matter the direction.

Posted by: Keith on May 13, 2007 at 2:48 AM | PERMALINK

My bad. I didn't read the link. It seems that I was too harsh on the good professor.

Posted by: Keith on May 13, 2007 at 2:53 AM | PERMALINK

Tench Cox.

No answer. For what ever reason.

Tench CoxE, a colonialist, a rebel, then a British collaborator, then a nationalist. And somewhat confused logic. No surprise there.

Perhaps not the best example of history or thought.

Posted by: notthere on May 13, 2007 at 2:58 AM | PERMALINK

...Schools of education are horrible places for intellectual breakthroughs and creative thought. I should know. I work in one.

Context is everything in learning. Starting from a contemporary problem, frankly, is how much history is produced by historians.

I am not sure why this approach would impact the end of the year state test, either. After all, one should have equal "coverage," if that is the intent (and it shouldn't be), no matter the direction.

Posted by: Keith on May 13, 2007 at 2:48 AM | PERMALINK

First, then schools are failing at the fundemental level.

As working in the system I would be really interested as to why inner city schools have fallen so badly continually over 30+ years.

Posted by: notthere on May 13, 2007 at 3:09 AM | PERMALINK

Any means that effectively gets students interested in history is worthwhile. My U.S. History teacher in 11th grade devoted one period a week to a discussion of current events, as a means to demonstrate both history's relevance and its influence on the present day.

How else would anyone in class have understood the significance of President carter's brokering of the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, if the discussion did not also include historical background information on the rivalry between Jew and Muslim, or between the West and the Arab world?

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on May 13, 2007 at 5:31 AM | PERMALINK

The problem with teaching history backwards is that it is nonsensical.

The way Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Gonzales, etc. behaved today did not come from nothing, not out of a vacuum.

And, particularly where you know where the misconceptions came from, how do you put it in a framework.

E.g., how to teach WWII without knowing WWI, the League of Nations, Versailles Treaty, Naval treaty, etc., or US-Russian now without knowing WWII, Cuba crisis, arms limitation, red scare, Egypt, Libya, Israeli wars, etc., or the battle of Agincourt (1415) without knowing about the progression of the 100 years war, Poitiers, Normandy and Burgundy, or the Norman Invasion of Britain (1066).

Teaching history backwards is a faddish, cute idea with NO value.

Posted by: notthere on May 12, 2007 at 11:35 PM

Yeah, but how can you know about the Norman Invasion in a vacuum? Don't you need to know about the history of the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans before them, etc., etc.

So should we teach history at all only if we start with the Big Bang (or whatever came first)?

And, if we go that far back, won't history lessons turn out a bit compressed and superficial?

Posted by: Mike on May 13, 2007 at 5:44 AM | PERMALINK

One technique I've seen that does this is "6 Whys." Take any current topic and make a single statement about it. Then ask "Why?" and answer with one (or several short statements). Repeat until you get back to the beginning of time (or Noah's Ark, if you prefer). After only a few "whys" you end up with a large pyramid of interconnecting events and concepts.

Posted by: Daryl Cobranchi on May 13, 2007 at 6:33 AM | PERMALINK

I don't really see that teaching history backwards would be any better than teaching history forwards well. Which is to say that a good teacher can interest kids in the Missouri Compromise, and a bad teacher isn't going to overcome being a bad teacher by reversing the syllabus.

Would kids feel it was more relevant if it started with current events? Well, I'm not sure that all that many kids are all that knowledgeable about or interested in current events, either. So I don't see that as a big draw. Additionally, kids don't have any investment in Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars, or Frodo at the beginning of LotR, but they like the stories because the stories are well crafted.

Don't get me wrong, it's an interesting approach, and it might even bring out some unique emphases that are missed through traditional forward-teaching history. If a teacher wants to try it, I'm all for it. But I imagine what benefits you see from the approach would be due mostly to the novelty of it. If everyone taught history backwards, the forward approach would seem more appealing.

I think a bigger problem with the way history is taught is that, as this news item shows, schools don't like controversy. As a result, history texts and courses are designed to be as uncontroversial as possible. I think they believe they are being objective, but really it's just taking on the politically safest viewpoint, which isn't really objective at all. The end result is that history becomes a pretty bland affair. If events are to have any context and any real meaning, there has to be a viewpoint behind them, and the viewpoint of "let's not get our asses sued or fired" just isn't a very stimulating one.

Posted by: Royko on May 13, 2007 at 6:53 AM | PERMALINK

I like the teach it backwards idea. Like many others who've already posted here, the lessons I received stopped for lack of time too early in the historical record. I'm still filling in the gaps between what I was taught and contemporary times (30 years past my Bachelors.) My complaint, and Kevin's I suspect, is that most people never attempt to fill in the gaps and hence this country has a very poor idea of why and how we've come to this point. They can't connect the founding with now.

Even better, teach it from the middle out. A few years back I made an attempt to switch careers from software to teaching (didn't work) and went thru the thought experiment of designing an American history curriculum. Mine started with the Civil War and worked back a generation, then forward, taking turns until about 200 years was covered. Still leaves a lot of pre-revolution America to cover, but it was a good and more comprehensive start.

Posted by: dennisS on May 13, 2007 at 7:02 AM | PERMALINK

Ah, Kevin.

Teaching backwards is an intrinsically dangerous idea. It allows the mischeivous and malovelant to concoct their schemes of revisionism. It allows too much room for mischeif.

For instance, in class one the teacher asks how we came to a world without communism. Well, that makes it sound like communism was always destined to fail. That it was ineluctable. It completely overlooks the fact that one man was responsible for the downfall of that evil form of government.

Posted by: egbert on May 13, 2007 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

You find out who your parents are, then your grandparents. Then you learn about your great-grandparents and your great-great-grandparents and the worlds and times that they inhabited. There's nothing backward about it. Randomly picking a "starting point" in time is nonsensical. Starting from NOW is logical, but I was a bad high school student and college drop-out who mentioned this idea to my Phd holding brother-in-law 20 years ago, and he stared at me as if he had never realized before just how stupid I was.

Posted by: dougles on May 13, 2007 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

It was too logical.
I taught "Theatre Arts" in a college for 6 years. To act-out what your character is now, you have to know that persons past.
How do you play any character in any play without knowing, or thinking, about how they were raised? What they were like in their youth?
You can't - and still do justice to the written word. What made you "you?" What made them "them?"
We start from where we are, and try to figure out how we got here. One single job interview, a road traveled (instead of not-taken) is the difference.
The current occupation in Iraq comes from the 1920's; which comes from the 1820's - on down.
Teaching history this way is too logical. It might make student's feel that they are a part of a continuam...
I think, therefore I am...
Thinking starts with today. I wake up today a different person from yesterday - yet, the same. Why?
That is what we ponder in every self-consious thought. At least, those of us who think...
It's too much for teaching history. It's tooooooooo logical. Ergo, it must go.
We must start from some dis-interested point in the past. "That'll teach 'em!:"

Posted by: Victor Small on May 13, 2007 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

Teaching backwards was a common point of discussion when I was working on my Ph.D. in history. The problem is that it's hard to do well. James Burke, who created the Connections and The Day the Universe Changed for British television, had a great approach that started with a present condition, and then went back to a "beginning" and worked his way forward. The problem with that approach is that it lends a sense of inevitability to the story, but that's common to any method of teaching history.

The two things I've observed that are common to most good history teachers: they tend to be good story tellers and they tend to ask hard questions of their students.

Posted by: Mike on May 13, 2007 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

If a kid is not discussing history at home at the suppertable with his parents, then it is pretty irrelevant no matter what teaching technique a poor teacher tries. Homelife like that ain't going to happen.

And if you start with today as a "context" (which I can't see), then you have to start with, ugh, popular culture. Try telling the kids it is shit. They can't accept it is all wallpaper. Half the kids here can't accept it.

Of course, if they had discussed popular culture at the suppertable with their parents, then they might be better prepared.

The rule?: if it isn't in the family culture, it isn't in the kid. Exceptions are just exceptions.

Posted by: Bob M on May 13, 2007 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

My biggest gripe with my history education is that we spent so much time on the Founding Era, the Civil War, and WW2, that we ran out of time before we got to things like the Civil Rights Era, Vietnam, the Cold War, etc.

Heck, no US history class I ever took -- grade school, high school, or college -- ever got so far as WWII. It was almost like the Simpsons episode where the students are running out of school for summer vacation and the teacher chases them yelling "I didn't get to tell you how World War II ends!"

Posted by: Gregory on May 13, 2007 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

I'm an historian.
Sounds like an effective methodology to me. Was his historiography faulty in some way?

Posted by: GWPDA on May 13, 2007 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

James Burke did a wonderful job teaching the evolution of scientific discoveries with his PBS series DISCOVERY and it made learning very interesting.

"1. Burke's Connections and His "Web" Theory of Change

In James' Burke's popular television series, Connections (PBS, 1979), he focused primarily on series of "serendipitous" events that led scientific discoverers or inventors to the development of major ideas or machines that have had a great impact on modern life, such as the the atomic bomb, telecommunications, computers, production lines, jet aircraft, plastics, rocketry, and television.

In each Connections episode -- and in each chapter of his bestselling book of the same name -- Burke focuses on exploring the presumably unrelated and seemingly unlikely series of events that lead, step by step, from one historical starting point, through development of this or related ideas, to the eventual "connection" of one or more of these ideas into a specific, modern technological application. His general focus is on the branching path of possibilities and connections that lead up to specific discoveries."
http://teachnet.edb.utexas.edu/~lynda_abbott/Burke1.html

Posted by: pigboy on May 13, 2007 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

"It completely overlooks the fact that one man was responsible for the downfall of that evil form of government."

I think you are giving Gorbachev to much credit. Also giving too little credit to the fact that communism, much like conservativism, doesn't deliver on any of the things it promises.

Posted by: chris on May 13, 2007 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

Ah, scrambled egbert - I was there fore the Cold War. Peace broke out in spite of that dolt Reagan, not because of him. Talk about revisionist history!

Communism was defeated by McDonald's, Levi's and rock-n-roll. With a modest assist from the smartest guys and gals in the service - the tron-twisting weenies in SAC.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on May 13, 2007 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

I make it to about 2003 or 2004 in my U.S. history survey class. I do teach about Iran-Contra, terrorism, 9/11, etc. I think my students ought to hear a systematic and logical discussion about current events. I used to say more about the 1990s but I do less of that now. Heck, that time was actually so good in comparison to the present it doesn't have that much to teach us. I do talk about how Reagan's administration was the most corrupt in American history (at least as far as the number of felony convictions are concerned) and about how hilarious it was to listen to the same folks who defended his administration declare Clinton's horribly corrupt a few years later. I spend a great deal of time tearing St. Ronny apart because the mythology around him has gotten way out of hand these days.

As for the backward thing, I have colleagues who've tried it with mixed results. It's pretty hard to do.

Here's what I do: I always make connections/analogies to present events as I go along in the course. I try my best to make several of those connections in every class period if possible. I think that helps the students to understand the present better.

Posted by: Tom Spencer on May 13, 2007 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

I was talking to a Thai woman in Phuket, Thailand about the local history. It turns out that she didn't know any of it. I asked her why and she replied "Why do you learn history? The same things just happen over and over." I didn't really have a response to that, and I still don't. History might be useful if we actually could learn from our mistakes. But we always think it will turn out different this time. And the same things keep happening over and over.

Posted by: fostert on May 13, 2007 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

So... a teacher can't show an award winning documentary to students? Fascinating.

Posted by: Mike M. on May 13, 2007 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

You find out who your parents are, then your grandparents. Then you learn about your great-grandparents and your great-great-grandparents and the worlds and times that they inhabited. There's nothing backward about it.

I don't think backward is being used pejoratively here. Also, that's a great way to learn about your direct ancestors, but not so great a way to learn about your cousins or your ancestors' cousins. Unless you start forward traversing again at the branch points.

Randomly picking a "starting point" in time is nonsensical. Starting from NOW is logical, but I was a bad high school student and college drop-out who mentioned this idea to my Phd holding brother-in-law 20 years ago, and he stared at me as if he had never realized before just how stupid I was.

I'm pretty sure one of my textbooks started with the Tigris/Euphrates "Cradle of Civilization". Starting from the beginning of human civilization seems pretty logical, too. (Aside from the issue that I'm not sure the Tigris/Euphrates origination is considered to be terribly reliable.) And I think my American History texts started with what was known about early civilizations in the Americas.

Anyway, picking a starting point isn't all that nonsensical. I mean, it's not like a random date is chosen, say 1500, and the course is taught from there. The starting point usually relates to the topic of history at hand. There are certainly limitations to that approach, and you can argue with the justifications for any particular point chosen, but you can hardly call it nonsensical.

Posted by: Royko on May 13, 2007 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

that one man was responsible for the downfall of that evil form of government

Gorbachev?

Posted by: ckelly on May 13, 2007 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

One of my history professors in college warned against exactly the kind of history most people here are extolling. He called it the "leads-up-to" school of thought. For example, you study the Reformation to "understand" WWII, and that produces brilliant insights like "Luther leads up to Hitler." In fact, some historians have argued just this kind of thing: the Holocaust was really Luther's fault, etc.

There is an inherent weakness in viewing history this way -- it's called using history to either justify or excoriate the present, usually out of purely political motives. Knowing the end of the "story" (the present), you seek only elements of the past that explain the "ending," rather than seeking elements that were relevant at the time in question.

History isn't a science experiment and historical events and human beings aren't billiard balls, as Hume might say.

Posted by: Orson on May 13, 2007 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

Wow. A lot of you seem to be really interested in how schools are failing. How very, very noble of all of you. I have two pieces of advice, if I may.

1) If you're not a teacher, haven't visited a classroom or haven't volunteered your time, and you're bitching about education, please go to hell.

2) Before you knock the kids for what they don't know, please keep in mind the many, many adults who bleed their lack of curiousity on a daily basis. If you want proof, I'd recommend checking out any online debate about education. You'll get plenty of know-nothing opinions from people who know oh-so-much about the issue.

I think the two points above apply especially to Kevin. But the rest of you should also pay attention. Repition helps in teaching so here goes:

If you haven't been involved with education outside of bitching about it, please go to hell.

Posted by: Anonymous on May 13, 2007 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

Anyway, picking a starting point isn't all that nonsensical. I mean, it's not like a random date is chosen, say 1500, and the course is taught from there. The starting point usually relates to the topic of history at hand.

Yes, but in the vast majority of history classes taught at the college level, I'd expect that their topics are narrow enough that a very good portion of the history taught must focus on precursors to the era of interest.

For example, how does one cover The Enlightenment without truly extensive forays into the past? The reality of most of those courses is that they must be taught from the middle out, because they start in the middle. It's actually pretty rare for a course to begin in effect from a completely blank slate.

Posted by: frankly0 on May 13, 2007 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

I mean, it's not like a random date is chosen, say 1500 . . .

My recollection of the two entry level college world (e.g., European) history courses I took is that they were divided in exactly that fashion.

Posted by: rea on May 13, 2007 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

People need to think about what history is for: moral instruction. History presumes that we're capable of learning from the fates of others. Learning the dates of events, the names and lifespan of kings, trade routes etc is an inane game if it's divorced from teaching us how to live.

Of course, it's possible -- if not probable -- that the example of others is irrelevant to the way we live. How many people die after driving drunk, eh? And then, there's the problem of the Cornucopia of Evidence: any sufficient body of data will yield whatever it is you want to find And history is like your great aunt's ass: every time you look there's more of it.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on May 13, 2007 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

To follow up on my post, one point I am making is that a great deal of taught history is already "backwards history", namely, the filling in of precursors to the period of interest. If "backwards history" were inherently illogical, a great deal of history would be close to impossible to communicate.

Posted by: frankly0 on May 13, 2007 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

They should teach math backwards too. Start with the most recent research in advanced calculus or whatever and then work backwards toward counting.

Posted by: JG on May 13, 2007 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

>>People need to think about what history is for: moral instruction.

That is a perfect summation of what history isn't. This kind of thinking produces homilies and hagiographies of the most distorted and ridiculous sort (see Gibbon or Voltaire), but it doesn't produce anything remotely like "history." Most historians abandoned this approach 200 years ago -- maybe there is a "moral lesson" in that somewhere.

Posted by: Orson on May 13, 2007 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

Talk about revising history, I'm watching John McCain on TV right now. His version of history does not include the massive foreign policy screw ups that led to our current situation. History is always written by the winners and the version he's putting forward is at best questionable. Public opionion is not part of his history. Public will is not part of his history. All that matters is the illusion that reality is fantasy and vice versa. For the most part, Americans (myself included) are ignorant of the complicated history of the middle east. All we know is that the Saudis are our freedom loving friends who share their oil with us.
Afterthought: Egbert, if you really think that a senile third rate actor singlehandedly brought down Soviet communism, you need to read more history and fewer Republican talking points.

Posted by: sparky on May 13, 2007 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

If you don't study history to learn how to live, what do you study history for?

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on May 13, 2007 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

mhr: Where's your link on that CA teacher being fired for emailing Washington's Second Address? I can't find it, and I call shenanigans. Being fact-free is the joy of being a conservative.

But on topic: I (a media specialist) and a teacher designed a world history class to be taught exactly in this way. We included some abstraction activities in which students began to determine patterns and "themes," which they would look for and track as we delved futher back.

It was shot down on sight by the administration: students who transferred into or out of the class would be lost.

Posted by: dale on May 13, 2007 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

notthere: Teaching history backwards is a faddish, cute idea with NO value.

Don't be ridiculous; that's how everyone learns history. And math is taught wrong too. Math teaching (at least short of the abstract algebra level) should start from applications, warts and all, just like the math itself did.

Posted by: W. Kiernan on May 13, 2007 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Somwhat OT but in response to Royko: I've always had an interest in ancient history (I'm reading Marc van de Mieroop's History of the Ancient Near East now). As a moderately well-informed layman, there seem to be three good places to call the cradle of civilization: Egypt, Sumer (i.e., the Tigris-Euphrates area), or the Indus Valley. The Indus Valley civilization's script hasn't been deciphered yet, so we're really left with Egypt and Sumer.

That leaves out the Americas. The Norte Chico civilization in ancient Peru appears to date back to roughly the same era as early Egypt and Peru. But they didn't have writing. Well, they appear to have used quipu (like the Inca did later), but it may not be more than a proto-writing system.

Posted by: mwg on May 13, 2007 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

If you don't study history to learn how to live, what do you study history for?

How about so that you can understand the period in question?

Why does every discipline have to have a practical, personal application, otherwise it's of no value? Why is the pursuit of the truth in a given area not itself an inherent value?

Posted by: frankly0 on May 13, 2007 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

>>If you don't study history to learn how to live, what do you study history for?

To get at the truth? To understand the past?

In any case, that is different from saying that history is (and should be) a form of moral propaganda, which is what you said before.

Posted by: Orson on May 13, 2007 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

A California teacher is getting fired because he e-mailed George Washington's Farewell Address to some fellow faculty members. He took it from Pat Buchanan's website and that was enough. Many teachers would support firing of colleagues outed for being Republicans but they would have manned the barricades for communists or socialists. That's part of the joy of being a liberal.

Does anyone know if this event is real history, or just the Wingnut fantasy version of it?

Per the idea of teaching history backwards, I would speculate that it works if and only if it is done, as others have noted, as a series of questions to explain the present, sufficently focused to present the chain of causes clearly. That is, the backtracking shouldn't take an entire semester, it shoud be done trope by trope.

Per someone else's mention of the Battle of Agincourt, why would any American not covering Shakespeare in English Lit need to care? Sure, the English make a fetish of it, but they lost that war big time, so the incident is historically trivial to anyone who doesn't cling to it as an example of fleeting glory. I'm reminded of American Southerners rambling on about Pickett's Charge and not knowing or caring about other far more important things happening at the same time.

Posted by: Berken on May 13, 2007 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

Regardless of how history is taught, it is learned backwards. Some event or person interests you and you try to learn more about how or why that happened.

History that is taught "forwards" is nonsensical, because, where do you begin? Unless you ware willing to go back about 12 million years, which probably wouldn't be allowed in Nebraska in any case, you must start in the middle by making a number of totally unsupported assertions.

Once we have learned enough history to have some idea of what is being discussed, reading forwards in time becomes a pleasant experience of "what happens next". But if you try to explain what you're reading to somebody who doesn't know anything about it, you'll find it very hard to say why they should find it interesting. In fact, the chances are pretty good you will have a hard time staying interested if you're reading forwards in a history text beyond your existing knowledge base.

An example of how strong the urge is to learn history backwards is the idea that the Pilgrims came here to get religious freedom. This idea starts with the religious freedom we have, and works backwards to think the Pilgrims came here for that. In reality, they came here to establish a state without religious freedom, when they had given up on being able to do that in England.

Of course, this comment relates to the study of history, and not to the socialization process that the schools, in their role as prisons, are expected to perform upon the young.

Posted by: serial catowner on May 13, 2007 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

[Unable to verify mhr's allegation, the blatantly dishonest comment was deleted.]

Posted by: . on May 13, 2007 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

Hmmmm...spellchecker passes 'ware' because it, after all, is a perfectly legitimate word- but rejects 'hmmm' and 'spellchecker'. Yup- this 21st century- she's a doozey!

Anyway- are we the most ahistorical people in the world, or what?

Somehow it never occurred to us that the proverbial cradle of civilisation, which has seen empires come and go for 8 millenia, might have developed social structures designed to outlive conquering empires.

Go figure.

Posted by: serial catowner on May 13, 2007 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

>>People need to think about what history is for: moral instruction.

I'll also point out that you are making about 20 different assumptions in this statement. For example:

- human beings have a fixed human nature that is the same across time and cultures.

- all people operate under the same moral code.

- all people will draw the same moral lessons from historical events, even though historians usually have conflicting views on what those events even were, much less the "moral lessons" everyone is supposed to draw from them.

If you abandon the search for truth and substitute in its place moral edification and propaganda (in the Catholic sense) as the goal of history, I'm not sure on what grounds you would criticize political propagandists in the DPRK, Nazi Germany, the PRC, etc. They just have a different set of "moral lessons" that they are trying to teach. They are operating the same way, though. I guess your fallback position could be that they have the wrong moral code and you have the right one. Or something.


Posted by: Orson on May 13, 2007 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

Science is taught backwards! Stupidly so! I have been fighting the battle on this front first as a high-school science teacher (lasted two years, the kids were great, the parents sucked and the administration in that particular district was the Peter Principle personified.)

Physics should be first, not last. The laws of physics govern Chemistry. Chemistry is an integral component of understanding biology.

Yet we teach freshmen biology, and seniors physics. I spent more time on elementary Chemistry in my Bio classes than I did actually teaching biology.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on May 13, 2007 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

This is exactly how I taught history to my now grown sons. We watched the news, then talked about "how we got here" related to whatever issue we saw on the news. We loved our backwards timelines. As a result, my kids were always interested in current events, and to this day we still play the game the same way when we gather for family dinners. Also, as a result, they were encouraged to READ to find out "how we got here." How unfortunate that a teacher with an innovative idea that I happen to know works, is punished. I would love to see how his students performed with this method.

Posted by: Candyce on May 13, 2007 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

try teaching about the missouri compromise to students who can't find missouri on a map of the us

teaching backwards works well if the students already have a basic understanding of history from a linear perspective

learning names dates etc makes it easier to place events in context

my take is that both approcahes can be used at the same time, but you need to know at least some of the forward approach before the backward approach can work well

Posted by: gs on May 13, 2007 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Fortunately, I went to school before the Age of Tests (though on the tests we did take - the"Iowa Tests" - I used to freak out the teachers since I scored in the 95th+ percentile and was in the bottom of class grade-wise). I self-taught myself history. Started with building models, then asked "what was that (name the object) used for?" and my father would take me to the library where I would get a book about that war. Then "how did that war start?" Off to the library... repeat as necessary.

Thank God I can say I never ever had a "learning experience" in a public school classroom, other than learning to get the hell away from those morons as fast as possible.

Posted by: TCinLA on May 13, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

The school's consultant said it was "not logical, does not contribute to effective teaching or monitoring of progress, and puts students at a disadvantage" with newly instituted statewide tests

No further comment necessary.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on May 13, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

TCinLA,

We have at least two things in common. I, too, scored in the top percentiles of the Iowa Basic Skills Tests while earning low C's across the board. I also taught myself history in the same or a similar manner: a question would occur to me and I would launch an attack on that section of the library until my curiosity was satisfied. Nearly every time, what I read generated more questions, leading to more reading.

One personal experience from my younger years that I always thought might be generalized was that my introduction to an era or an historical topic was often a work of fiction set in the period. Because I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities in 9th grade, I obsessed on the French Revolution and Napoleon for the rest of the year. I read the Bounty trilogy after seeing the movie (Marlon Brando version) and then read everything I could get my hands on about how the British empire grew and about sailing ships. Some YA fiction about the Civil War, along with a family trip to Gettysburg, started a lifelong interest in that era. Shakespeare's history plays and the movie Becket animated an interest in the Plantagenets. And so on and so on.

The narrative and the drama in literature and film provide a fertile field in which the "facts" can be planted.

Posted by: James E. Powell on May 13, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

"If you haven't been involved with education outside of bitching about it, please go to hell."

my guess here is that all of us, even egbert, have spent time in a class room. and most of us have sat through what we perceived to be a boring history class at some time or other. i think that gives us standing to bitch. personally, i love history. i just wish more people would.

really the key to making history interesting is context. the missouri compromise without context IS a dusty old topic. in context, it's a key to understanding perhaps the central issue of american history. if teaching history backwards helps provide that context, great.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on May 13, 2007 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

They should teach math backwards too. Start with the most recent research in advanced calculus or whatever and then work backwards toward counting.

Or both at the same time. It pisses me off that Calculus is pretty much unknown to kids until their brains have been ossified.

Posted by: Boronx on May 13, 2007 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

Well, here are some comments from someone who actually is a high school history teacher.

To start with, while I don't think that teaching history backwards is necessarily the right way to do it, I've found that you do have to use current events in some way, shape, or form, to get students interested in history. So the technique of saying "this is the current situation, how and why did it get this way" is a very effective instructional technique. I've been doing this the last few years with my unit on the Middle East (which covers both Iraq and Israel/Palestine), and I would guess my students know more about the history of the Middle East than most adults. They can't explain in detail the differences between the different branches of Islam, are knowledgable about the Koran, and understand how the present day Middle East was shaped by decisions made by the British during the early part of the 20th century, They know that Iranians are Persians, whereas most people think they are Arabs, whic they are not.

I've also created other successful units on the Consitution (using the Partiot Act as a jumping off point) and on immigration (using today's immigration issues as a jumping off point).

The bottom line with any topic is that for high school students to be interested in it, it has to be made relevant to their daily lives. In history, using current events as a jumping off point is an excellent way to do this.

Posted by: mfw13 on May 13, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Wasn't "th" its own letter back in Old English? Damn, if you're going to start at the start it makes your answer even slier.
Posted by: Mo MacArbie

Yep--there were actually 2 different letters--the "thorne," the soft/unvoiced th, which looked sorta like a "p" (and was later misread as "y," hence all the "Ye olde shoppe" signs) and the "eth," which was the hard/voiced "th," which looked sorta like a d with a line through it.

As for teaching history backwards, it is used and it's very successful--in good International Relations classes.

I don't know why people think the two are mutually excusive. Good teachers are flexible enough to use both approaches.

Posted by: Lolly on May 13, 2007 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK


The biggest problem with high school history was not that earlier history was inherently uninteresting (it's not).

The problem was that you were always behind so you had to rush through all the recent history, which is the most important part, before the school year ended. We'd spend weeks on Napoleon and then like an hour on De Gaulle--just to know enough for the standardized tests. We'd spend a week on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson but we'd barely get to Watergate and we never even discussed Iran-Contra.

Teaching backwards helps solve that problem but creates new ones. Rather than teach backwards, though, I think the lessons maybe should be more thematic rather than chronological. There should be a unit on the Constitution, which starts out with the drafting of it and then follows the major amendments and constitutional crises through to the present day. There should be a unit on the development of the executive branch and its evolving powers. One or more units on wars/internationalism/isolationism etc. Slavery, Jim Crow/civil rights, etc.

I don't know, maybe this has been tried and doesn't work for some reason.

Posted by: Dave in NYC on May 13, 2007 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

We've all seen great movies or read great books that begin at the end of a story and then go back and tell the beginning. But they usually tell the story chronologically once they jump back in time. How many narratives can you think of that start at the end and tell the story faithfully in reverse? Not many, I'll wager.

Narrative is one of the strongest forces going. Human intelligence is based in large part in finding patterns. Sequential narrative is one of the universally recognized patterns across cultures.

As a trial lawyer, I know that juries struggle to create a narrative from a given set of facts. Each advocate uses mostly the same facts to support a narrative favorable to that advocate's client. If the advocates don't come up with a persuasive narrative, though, the jury will create one of its own.

Having said that, I think that teaching history "backwards" has an inherent conflict with the way that humans organize facts into narratives. I don't think that using the backwards process to general history makes sense.

However, Donald from Hawaii and Daryl Cobranchi have hit the nail on the head. It makes great sense to start at the present on a limited topic and then go back and tell the story of the current situation's origins. That comports with the narrative pattern we are used to. In the process, a teacher can certainly enrich the subject by identifying connections a la Burke.

Posted by: anoregonreader on May 13, 2007 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

Good teachers eh? It is so easy to teach history and "make it interesting" when you have more than 150 students a day, 25% (and sometimes more) of them who live under single parent households (translation = usually very poor) and 95% of them who drank Coke and cheetos out of the vending machine for breakfast?!?! Why does teaching have to "be a dog and pony show?" Shouldn't students be motivated to learn for the greater good?

High school and middle school teachers see students 5 hours a week! Where is the parents role?

Also, for those of you touting home school, non-US schools and private schools, did you see this link that the US Dept of Ed didn't want anyone to see? When adjusted for socio-economic status, students performed the same.

http://tinyurl.com/2l97wl

Posted by: Yelli on May 13, 2007 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

They may almost have a valid point about putting the students at a disadvantage on the standardized tests. Unfortunately, that's all education is now, teaching students to pass the standardized test.

Posted by: John on May 13, 2007 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

The idea that you study history in order to understand the era rather than to learn how to live just pushes the problem into a different corner. Why understand another era? It's dead and gone. (Unless you view Time as Faulkner did: the Past isn't dead. It's not even past.)

Studying History is either useful or it's just a bunch of gossip with fancy pants diction. If it's useful, how is it useful? (This isn't specious. Can it be demonstrated that we ever learn from anyone's mistakes? We avoid fires and snakes apparently due to genetics not experience.) If History isn't useful, why is it taught at all? There are other things begging to take its place. It's an actual problem: at one point, Greek and Latin, two absolute essentials to a gentleman's education, occupied the bulk of learning. Why History isn't simply a gentleman's hobby should be demonstrated rather than assumed. It's nice to know that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but why? So that sonorous speechifying can have a stock motif? Apparently so. My suggestion that History should help teach us how to live drew scorn.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on May 13, 2007 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

"The Past Sure is Tense" - Don Van Vliet
The past sure is tense
they're heading up for the main event
all those people seem to be hell-bent
see those people up on top of the fence
and the man down there
selling knotholes through the fence
the little shoe generation man
I found your print on a dollar bill
I founf your print on an Indian mound
I found your print on the statue at the sound
I found your print on the elephant ground
I found your print in the beautiful mountains
the grass no longer grew around
I found your print in my mind -
the past sure is tense
the pastsureistense
no you got the wrong idea
no you got the wrong intent
the carpenter carpenterized my vent
the only peephole
where is my dent
the past sure is tense
the past sure is tense
the past sure is now
I don't see how
see those people that used to
throw those tents
you can't see them now
they're in past tense
the past sure is tense

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on May 13, 2007 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

There you have it again in black and white -

".....and puts students at a disadvantage" with newly instituted statewide tests, according to a paper on the subject by Professor Nancy Patterson of Bowling Green".

We can't actually TEACH our students because we need them to pass the damn tests so schools can get their money. When are the American people going to wise up to the fact that these standardized tests DO NOT promote knowledge or test understanding, rather, they are a means to create government contracts with book publishers and an attempt to bring unconstitutional vouchers into the public school system, thus sending students to private, religious schools?

We have seen the failure of this in Florida, Texas and countless other states. I'd love to give this instructor a medal or at least shake their hand for having the balls to do what was right and in the end, effective, but again - the GOP led education system continues to dumb down the American student to perpetuate the ignorant, unquestioning electorate! God, as an educator it makes me sick!

Posted by: webslinger on May 13, 2007 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

"Teaching history backwards" means that you start with a present event. Then you say "Why did this happen? What causes led up to it? What are these historical events people are comparing it to? The groups on each side, where did they come from?"

That gives you a lead into the history of each of those things. After talking about the current fight over the estate tax, this would lead into a history lesson about the *establishment* of the estate tax, and the history of the anti-estate-tax groups. Explaining the Iraq War would lead naturally into "Why was Iraq in this funny situation?", which leads to the story of the Gulf War. Explaining the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis leads naturally to explaining the history of the CIA coup against Mussadegh. Which leads to explaining what Mussadegh was reacting against, and the history of the colonial period in the Middle East and the "Great Game". Explaining the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s leads naturally to the question "Why were things like that in the South?", which is answered by explaining the history of Reconstruction.

That's what "teaching history backwards" means. After explaining the history of a particular period and area, you answer the students' natural question: "How did it get that way?".

Posted by: Nathanael Nerode on May 13, 2007 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

The scariest thing about history is realizing just how much of it I've lived through.

Posted by: Hunter on May 13, 2007 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

The scariest thing about history is realizing just how much of it I've lived through.

Yup. Think about it: if you've reached the age of fifty, you have lived through a full 1% of the history of human civilization. Does that make you feel wise or just old?

Posted by: Berken on May 13, 2007 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

One of the books I read that fascinated me the most was The Wooden World, about the British Navy during the 1700s. It was fascinating, of course, because I was in the US Navy at the time and could see where various cultural traditions in the Navy came from. It was all real and directly relevant to me.

Posted by: Rich on May 13, 2007 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

I teach my art history survey thematically, connecting concerns from about 70 thousand years ago to today's issues. It seems to work particularly well for grappling with larger issues, such as how cultures and societies change their ideas about things. In answer to the questions posed above regarding the uses of history, I think this is one of the main ones--understanding strategies for negotiating change. If the current administration had a better understanding of practical consequences and historical outcomes, rather than just abstract moral theories justifying their fantasies of global domination, I'm quite sure things would be going a lot better in the Middle East.

Posted by: Jess on May 13, 2007 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

"Think about it: if you've reached the age of fifty, you have lived through a full 1% of the history of human civilization."

What's even more amazing to consider is that what we call the history of human civilization only makes up about 5% of our time on the planet. We've been around for about 150 thousand years. What's more, many archeologists believe that our standard of living went DOWN when we became "civilized" and gave up our hunting-gathering existance--we did so out of necessity, not because it was a wonderful step forward.

Posted by: Jess on May 13, 2007 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

We live life forwards, and understand it backwards.

If the primary reason to teach history is to remember it, then the best way is to make it like experience--that is, to make it a story, and as vivid, exciting, diresct and, yes, moral as you can.

There's a problem these days in that therre are more and more competing stories. Tolkien's history is much better than ours, and there are kids who can tell you the organization of Hogwarts but not of Congress.

But if the purpose is to understand history, it has to--in part--be taught backwards. Because if all we teach is the story, the Civil War is no different from the War of the Ring, and Adolf Hitler no different from Lord Voldemort.

It shouldn't be taught just backwards or forwards either, but in every direction along the web. James Burke's documentaries show something very important about history--that there are all sorts of connections in all sorts of directions.

And a danger of history as story is also that it leaves young minds vulnerable to someone who comes along with a better story: like the story of how Ronald reagan won the Cold War by Standing Up To The Russkies. It's more exciting, and it makes Reagan more like Albus Dumbledore. And so the poor young republicans throw one story away for the oher--and argue that way--instead of looking at the whole web of factors that came together with the fall of the Soviet Union, and argue for more or less weight.

Teaching complexity is tough: there aren't many ways to make it not painful. But it's necessary.

I like Baker's idea, and I bristle at the word 'consultant' automatically: I think that we're not going to get the best and the brightest going into teaching if we treat them like line workers in a factory rather than professionals and experts in their on right--but that might be imposing my own story on the reality.

Posted by: pbg on May 13, 2007 at 5:18 PM | PERMALINK

Teachers come and go. Sylabi change. School boards elected amatuers. Parents distracted. Administrators move on. Emphasis shifts with each generation. That's life, deal with it. Learning is a life-long journey not an end in itself.

Posted by: namvetted on May 13, 2007 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

As someone who has been a history teacher (and still is) for 33 years -my classes always get to the present-thats the point, at least for me teaching US the idea is to understand how this country got this way what the student's place is and what they want it to be! most other teachers I know also get to the present-I think this blog must have a group of people who took the slacker classes in high school :)

Posted by: Tmo on May 14, 2007 at 12:27 AM | PERMALINK

This is not a new idea. My mother's cousin (a very liberal Democrat as I knew her) taught school in a wealthy NJ suburb of New York City in the '30's and tried to use this technique. She got fired too (the school board probably didn't want anyone to know there was a depression on). And while I don't think she was actually a Communist, I bet the board thought she was.

Posted by: David in NY on May 14, 2007 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

Long-time lurker, first time poster. Back in the early '80s, my history teacher taught from the present backwards. LOVED the class, and I learned a great deal of early 20th-century history. Kids should absolutely be taught present-day history.

My two centavos.

Posted by: Bostony McBoston on May 14, 2007 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

Thank God the orthodoxy has been protected! After all, there is not indication that we could possibly improve on teaching history.

Posted by: AlphaLiberal on May 14, 2007 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

Don't have time to go through all the comments (sorry, got a sick Mrs.), but the main problem I saw was this:

The school's consultant said it was "not logical, does not contribute to effective teaching or monitoring of progress, and puts students at a disadvantage" with newly instituted statewide tests ...

Who the hell cares what the actual best teaching method is? Who cares what may get kids interested in what many of them consider a boring subject since they don't see how it affects them?

Let's worry about passing some ricockulous test so we don't lose our funding!

We've become a nation of dolts. Just look at who some folks voted for President ...

**bangs head on desk**

Posted by: Mark D on May 14, 2007 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK
E.g., how to teach WWII without knowing WWI, the League of Nations, Versailles Treaty, Naval treaty, etc., or US-Russian now without knowing WWII, Cuba crisis, arms limitation, red scare, Egypt, Libya, Israeli wars, etc., or the battle of Agincourt (1415) without knowing about the progression of the 100 years war, Poitiers, Normandy and Burgundy, or the Norman Invasion of Britain (1066).

Actually, its quite easy to do it that way, its like peeling back the layers of an onion. You teach WWII, and there are things that don't make sense from that, of course. You have discussion questions on it. People naturally want to understand. And then you move back. Done in manageable, logical chunks it makes sense that this would be the most effective way of learning history. It starts with the most familiar, what is going on right now, and answers questions that naturally arise from that in looking immediately prior, raising new questions, which are answered by looking at the next chunk back, etc.


Posted by: cmdicely on May 14, 2007 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

I forget the name of the presenter, but the old Connections show was a perfect example of teaching history in a different way.

Every show began with a well-known modern item - like a space shuttle - and examineed a series of historical ideas, inventors and inventions necessary for the shuttle to exist. Fascinating.

Highly recommended. Oh - James Burke.

Posted by: numi on May 14, 2007 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

As a historian, I would love to do a million different things with my curriculum that I'm not allowed to do. Nothing kills my students inerest in things worse than the district mandated curriculum.

To reply to mirror--I want nothing more than to teach math traditionally and history creatively and my district won't let me. Let's start a new school together.

hence why I want to move to a private school

Posted by: Mrs. N on May 14, 2007 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Our problems in education predate the adoption of standardized testing, so it defies logic to argue that is is somehow the cause of it all. There has to be some way of empirically measuring what students learn. Not just for political reasons, but to help us understand if a school is educating it's students or not. School districts and states are adept at avoiding taking action and responsiblity for failed schools, holding them accountable is the first step among many in improving them. I think there is a legitimate argument about what sort of testing method should be applied, but that is a separate question.

NSLB, or the ESEA reauthorization as you might call it, was drafted primarily by the two of the most liberal members of Congress, George Miller and Ted Kennedy, hardly watercarriers for the GOP. The rank and file of the GOP HATE NSLB. The NEA is full of it when they pimp this lie. They need to get over it and spend more time working on constructive solutions.

Posted by: hebisner on May 14, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

I am a teacher in a Washington DC Public Charter School. I taught U.S. History, and D.C. History, backwards last year. It did take some time for my students to catch on to how to learn history in a non-chronological way but it also got some of them very interested in classroom discussions. Teaching backwards also allows for easier access to relevant video, music, and primary source material. This year I went back to teaching chronologically and the students are not as involved. Next year Ill go backwards again. The class is more interesting and we can cover more material because with each new topic we explore the subject back to its roots instead of taking things in the order they happened.

Posted by: LFKinDC on May 14, 2007 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

Some random comments:
I've heard a Nobel prize winning scientist advocate for teaching physics first and working back toward biology. He hasn't made much progress outside of some Chicago area schools.

Someone wondered why we should care about Agincourt. It was an advancement in warfare technology -- the longbow was an effective tool against calvary and in a way, made war and the status from war more democratic. A peasant who couldn't afford a horse could afford to train with the longbow. That's my shaky and now distant understanding from history class.

Conservatives like to think of public education as a hotbed of liberalism and brainwashing of kids. I would agree with the brainwashing, but it involves the status quo. Too many administrators have the real power and they don't like change, don't like anyone who shakes up the status quo. They're quintessential CYA types who fear controversy. That's why they make so many stupid decisions that make it into the paper.


Posted by: lou on May 15, 2007 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

I cannot even count how many times as students we discussed wishing to learn more current history, you know beyond WWII. I am a college graduate and have never been taught about any history beyond that time period. I feel ashamed of how little I know about recent history, such as Cold War, Nixon, and Vietnam, etc. I will take the blame for not taking the initiative to learn myself, but come on 16 years of school should have at least touched on it.

Posted by: Col on January 30, 2008 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly