Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Historians Disagree? What a Concept!

Click to enlarge.

I was a little wary about using that picture as the masthead for this blog. I mean, it is so very 19th century, yes? But I'm in transition, and it does serve a purpose, as I hope to show. Oh, and if you're short of time, let me immediately offer links to probably the most useful part of this particular post, Alan Brinkley's series of historiographical essays summarizing how historians have disagreed about various topics in American history down through the years. You can find the entire list here and the first essay here.

I establish from the first day of class that history is contested ground. I carry this concept into the third-week lesson illustrated above and develop it right through the year. History cannot be reduced to an authorized version, except perhaps under authoritarian regimes. The Florida Legislature was woefully misguided in its Gradgrindian insistence that history be taught as "just the facts," especially when the facts themselves are sometimes in dispute. The clash of competing interpretations of the past is part of the framework for every history course I teach.

Perhaps some techie types are put off by that dusty photo. And I must admit I had to shift my classroom computer several times to keep it from sucking the residue that wafted down from that board, perhaps from those very letters. What's written there, though, illustrates a basic approach I use in my classes. I begin most lessons by asking the students to hypothesize as to possible answers to whatever question we are considering. I call it "plowing up the furrows of their minds before sowing the seeds of knowledge," or something. They wince but usually respond with valuable insights. (By the way, I'm happy to report that last school year, a newly acquired document camera allowed me to shine student responses onto a large screen via a laptop/projector hookup. Thanks to various edubloggers, I will be able to do the lesson more collaboratively this coming school year. At this point I'm planning to do the lesson in a computer lab and have the students themselves write their ideas onto some kind of projected online whiteboard such as Skrbl, Twiddla, Thinkature, or Dabbleboard. That way we'll be able to analyze all the students' responses at once. If you know of better online whiteboards or some other, better approaches, please let me know in a comment or email.)

For this particular lesson, the "seeds of knowledge" came from an essay in Alan Brinkley's excellent college-level textbook, American History: A Survey (McGraw-Hill, 1999). Brinkley initiates a series of historiographical essays with one entitled, "Why Do Historians So Often Differ?" Before reading the essay, I ask students essentially the same question. The hypotheses by one class of eighth graders nicely anticipated some of Brinkley's main points. (Click on the chalkboard image to enlarge it or read the English translation below.)

Sadly, I couldn't find a link to Brinkley's introductory essay online, but the other essays--from pre-Columbian culture and the origins of slavery right through to Vietnam, Watergate, and women's history--can be accessed at the website to The Unfinished Nation, a slightly modified trade version of the Brinkley textbook. I think you will find the essays to be interesting and useful.

I hope to say more about this lesson once we get to it during the coming school year. In the meantime I would appreciate any suggestions and insights you might share for teaching differing interpretations of the past and how I might use computer technology, or any other media, more effectively in this lesson.

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