In 1997, President Bill Clinton assembled a science and technology committee to discuss what was necessary to equip schools with better technology to meet the accelerated technological changes in society. His concern was that America would fall behind the rest of the world if it didn’t start to interest its students in the world of technology. Americans would be consumers rather than innovators.
Today his ideas have acquired momentum and educators are entertaining the idea of giving children in elementary school a jumpstart on technology by using 3D printing as a resource.
In this heady rush to meet the approaching future, it’s easy to see why a K-12 student might openly question the value of taking a history class. Worse still, the student might even get a nod of approval from an avant-garde educator. This attitude that history is irrelevant – that what people did in the past does not affect us now – is reflected in low history test scores by the Department of Education. Students’ ignorance of historical facts is alarming. Most fourth graders don’t know why Abraham Lincoln was a significant historical figure.
While seasoned history professors talking to an incoming class of freshmen might warn that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it, not many people might be paying attention to the warning. Today, young people’s imaginations have been captured by all the practical benefits of instant telecommunications at their fingertips, and they would rather talk about a future when artificial intelligence (A.I.) will relieve us of the pain of making inaccurate decisions than about the cultural significance of the civil rights movement.
Reviving an Interest in History
While history is far from dead as an academic discipline, the interest in history has waned in high schools and college.
Here are 5 ideas on how to get students interested in history again:
- Use actual documents in class.
Reading about someone like John Hancock is not as interesting as showing a class of freshman students in an American history class a genuine John Hancock autograph. Witnessing the great flourish with which he signed the Declaration of Independence when he was the President of the Continental Congress will be electrifying. Students may grasp how real people – not abstract ideas — shaped the democracy they live in today.
- Introduce people before dates.
The problem with a decline in interest in history may not be due to history itself or to students’ blatant indifference to what happened in the past, but in the way history is taught. Historians tend to dwell on the least interesting aspects of history – the dates and places when things happened. While, of course, time and location are important, as they put things into context, what fascinates incoming freshman are the historical figures themselves. It’s rather dull trying to memorize all the presidents by dates in order to pass a test, but it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of their personalities. It’s interesting to hear about what struggles they faced and how they overcame or succumbed to the challenges of their day. Only after getting a vivid sense of people and events does an interest in placing them in time and space stir interest.
- Use technology to make history come alive.
History is usually taught by scribbling ideas on a chalkboard and poring over thick textbooks. In an age when people are learning through interactive media, this is probably one of the dullest ways to learn anything. Using technology, it’s possible to organize snippets from documentaries into a classroom lecture, as well as create software that uses gamification to learn facts and figures about historical events. Instead of a dry essay or multiple choice questionnaires, tests can be done using interactive quizzes.
- Move beyond memorization.
How much does memory matter when you can look up anything within seconds on your smartphone? What is more important is learning what things mean. A website can tell you when John F. Kennedy decided to send a man to the moon, but only a passionate teacher can tell you why it was an important decision and how it changed America’s belief in what was possible for the nation to achieve in the future.
- Connect the dots in social and technological progress.
Technology did not arise spontaneously in human culture. There is a long history of how everything was discovered, from the zero in mathematics that simplified counting based on Roman numerals to the Turing Machine that initiated the idea of an intelligent machine and ushered in the computer age. By teaching the evolution of ideas, history can connect current interest in technology with what happened in the past.
Why History Still Matters In Schools
Educators who don’t understand the value of history should be reminded of the memorable words of the philosopher George Santayana: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”