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rethinking… HISTORY

I have been puzzling over our education system’s desire to teach history for a long, long time, since I was a child. Not just war history, but any kind of history. Basically anything that has preceeded this moment. Not because it’s boring or largely limited to dates and dry facts, but because it just doesn’t make sense to teach it.

I have come to learn through my experiment with life that who I am in this moment, what I think about, what I put my energy into, how I engage with and respond to the world around me is a function of how good I am feeling. If I am frustrated or angry or confused, my interactions reveal this. If I am at peace, joyful, in love with life, my interactions are very different. The same is true for children… and for everyone.

When I consider the vastly confusing and disturbing history that is taught to children, it feels like abuse to me. What is the point of teaching a child about the slaughter of people during the Holocaust or any of the big number of wars our world has engaged in? Or racism or poverty or who was the president when? It’s not as if we have learned anything significant enough from such action to effect modern day change – the slaughtering and wars, poverty and racism continue. How is it valuable to feel so helpless, to feel such angst… or, even worse, to feel neutral about such historical storytelling? To reduce it to dates and facts, to test taking and earning grades?

Every story I am told or read about affects my psyche, my outlook on life. When I immerse myself in the Holocaust story, for example, I am left deeply ashamed and doubtful of humanity’s potential for good – even though this history is in our distant past and I was not involved in its making. I become mistrustful of others, sometimes even fearful. With the maturity the accompanies my life experience, I have to consciously and concertedly focus on shifting my angst and distrust. I know such feelings do not serve me or anyone. Sometimes this is a real challenge if story and resulting thoughts/feelings are dark enough.

To be clear, history is everything that has preceded this moment. We’re not going to do away with history, that’s impossible. History is part of each of us, in fact we are all creating our own history every moment. What I rebel against is the force feeding of history as if it (whatever history your school or teacher or parent deems is valuable) was integral to your development, something you somehow need to know to get on with life. Force feeding history of any kind to a child, or to anyone, is disrespectful. It disempowers the individual from the vast potential of creative invention, interferes with the harmonious connection with oneself and others, pushes one out of alignment with all the good and fully alive ways of being in the world.

What might the world look like if the only history we learned was that of our own self-motivated inquiry: we learn about history as our interest and need arise, no sooner. In a position of actively seeking the darker sides of human potential, for example – choosing the contrast we all naturally require to put the good into perspective, we are ready to devote the time that is required to think, dissect and digest what we’ve learned. In a position of being in control of when such information comes in, we can also immerse ourselves in the negative feelings that result. In such a position of being alone with our feelings as we consider the dark or differing sides of humanity we are in an ideal place to grow, become responsible, imagine and play out scenarios in which conflict does not arise or problems/challenges are resolved nonviolently in any number of novel and potentially enlightened ways.

Aside from changing every single thing about how history is taught now, this is really a pretty simple problem with a simple solution. Simple, that is, if you take responsibility for your child’s education, keep her out of schools with core curriculums and give up your own agendas about what kinds of history she should know in order to grow and prosper in the world.

When your child is young and engaged in their world through play and inquiry, they naturally ask questions about whatever becomes important to them. When their inquiry involves an answer with a historical perspective, whether it be from a week or a thousand years ago, your conversation with them incorporates what you know. Easy. As your child’s questions deepen, your review of history likewise deepens. When your child has had enough, you know she will tell you. Still easy.

The basic idea is no different as your child ages, whether they are 10, 18 or 45. When their life’s path takes them in a direction where a historical reference is valuable, they seek it and are ready to think about and make use of the information. I am no different. I, like everyone else out there, know only a fraction of the history that is out there for me to discover. The history that is important to me to know is that which is relevant to me for some reason. Personally, I am fascinated with human behavior, the whys and wherefores of what people do and why they do it. I am constantly seeking historical reference in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, motivation, punishment, abuse, and livelihood. Autobiographies are my favorite reading material. Do I think you should read what I read or learn what I have learned just because I find it valuable? No, duh. Why is it expected of a child or college student then, to learn what others deem valuable, in effect dumbing down the learner’s own natural drive to seek and make use of their own self-directed historical information?

More important than the force feeding and dumbing down aspect of teaching history, however, are the long time dissonant ramifications of doing so. Most learners, under the influence of such force feeding, are in a troubled state of 1) wondering why their time is being wasted and why their inherent choices of what they really want to learn are not valued and respected, 2) being confused, angry or feeling helpless over what they are learning about our mistake-making past, or 3) unconsciousness, as their thoughts and behaviors begin to shift to fall into alignment with their historical past instead of progressively and powerfully moving creatively forward.

What are we doing here? Why are we doing it? Let’s rethink the teaching of history from the ground up. Let’s make it simple. Let’s give the responsibility to the learner. A rich and vibrant, important and valuable world of history awaits. It is only useful when the learner is ready.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. gunta #

    Why single out history, Barb? Does it make sense to teach anything, force-feed anything? Learning history is like learning anything else.

    As for history itself, it helps explain where we come from. As far as I know, every tribe, community, society share stories, his and preferably also her stories 😉 Teaching history is also a very effective way of creating and destroying identities. One can learn a lot about a country both from what is being taught about its history as well as from what is being left out. Fascinating!

    BTW, people seem to be learning about wars. There are much less wars, much smaller number of people dying in wars than in any other time of his/herstory within human memory. We are learning. Being more informed and connected than before, we are changing.

    May 8, 2012
    • I only singled out history because it’s an area of academic focus that I have not addressed specifically in the past. Of course, what I say about history applies to everything.

      As for wars and whether there are fewer affected by them now than before, I am not sure about that. While in the U.S. we have not a draft since the 1970’s and not had a war on our turf since Pearl Harbor, we have been involved in numerous wars and the slaughter of thousands and thousands of people around the world. I think war has simply become more efficient: better weapons and less need for one on one combat.

      May 8, 2012
      • gunta #

        Wars kill much less people than even 50 years ago (40 million dead civilians in WWII only – we haven’t been able to kill nearly as much in all the conflicts and wars to follow). We hear more about the deaths of today’s conflicts, we are growing less accepting of atrocities, we seem to have more compassion – I see a connection between changes in raising children and levels of violence.

        I lived through the Singing Revolution in my home country when USSR broke up, and there have been other gentle revolutions after that – pretty much unheard of even a couple of decades before. And now, a wave of rather gentle revolutions only recently. Conflicts and wars, too, and yet the – nearly – bloodless revolutions seem to be a big part of the change we are witnessing. I realize that this is only my reality, that others might experience things differently, just like his/herstories.

        May 8, 2012
  2. I agree that when a child or adult wishes to learn more about something – they will and the sources will be more varied and multi faceted – not one eyed according to which country you live in. One day we will be reading about the ‘old’ way of schooling in strange looking, boring buildings and will have a giggle about how uptight we all were about it. 🙂

    May 8, 2012
    • oh yeah, I can see that completely. unschooling is to school (classrooms, grades, core curriculum, structured attendance) as the round earth is to the flat.

      May 8, 2012
      • sparklingadventures #

        Beautifully said, Barb!

        May 8, 2012
  3. Robyn #

    I love what you say, Barb!
    I have to say that I most of the time loved school, but I was president of the student council for three years and got some insights into how the curriculums were made… incredible! Instead of calmly discussing what would be important for students to learn (which I agree with you that students should ideally choose themselves), they were fighting over each hour they could get more for their subject, no matter if it was important in the overall picture or not. Just more, more, more.
    I love what Nassim Nicolas Taleb writes about history (and “books we have to read”) in his black swan theory: firstly, we have almost never learned from history, as each circumstances are unique. Secondly, what we consider a classic, a book we all have to have read, is only a matter of someone saying “this is a good book” and then some people agreeing and after some decades noone would dare to argue that the divine comedy or something else is not. It has almost never to do with if the book is actually remarkable or not.

    May 16, 2012

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