I have always thought that we teachers of history place entirely too much emphasis on fact recognition. We place inordinate emphasis on dates, small pieces of trivial information that might sound good but ultimately don’t contribute to the whole enough to matter. Some of this is forced upon us by standardized tests and the like, but this emphasis is still there. Does it really matter if Henry VIII was 6’3 or 6’4? Outside of the fact that he was a rather tall individual for his time period, what does that fact matter (he was 6’3…if you are wondering)? Students have been inundated with these kinds of facts for decades, and while it might be nice to know all of those trivial facts for Jeopardy night with your friends, the central point is missing. History is to be studied! History is the story of the human condition, with our particular patterns of behavior studied, analyzed and learned from. History is the record of great people doing great things, and why they did those great things so that future generations may become inspired to emulate and create their own great things in the creation of their own path. History re-tells the tales of our human heritage and give us insights into the best of what we are, and unfortunately, the worst of what we’ve become. History is, in Cicero’s words, “the witness of times, the light of truth, and the mistress of life”.
In our quest to teach and learn history, we’ve forgotten that the mere collection of names, dates and facts is nothing more than the nuts and bolts of history. Collection of these nuts and bolts results in a pile of them that is not put together. Think of an erector set (are those still around?), that is not assembled. That erector set is not much more than a pile of nuts, bolts, hinges, and metal that has no form. So it is with the mindless memorization of names, dates and facts from history. The story behind those names, dates and facts is what gives history its life, breathes into it being, makes it worth learning…and remembering. This is what we should be doing when teaching and learning history…breathing life into the names, dates and facts.
To be sure, the nuts and bolts must be there or there is no erector set, but to simply reduce the study of history down to nuts and bolts is not doing the science of history any justice at all. Try this…look for patterns within the events to see if there is some discernible direction that the facts take us. Look for the “why”! This is where the fruit is, where the fun is. This is where we find ourselves and where the relevance of history comes into play. Remember that history does not happen in a vacuum. It is not lifeless or formless. History does not take shape randomly. There are always forces working upon people to create history. Discover what those forces are and where they may lead. THAT is the relevance of the study of history and that will tell us who we are.
As teachers, we should take care to balance the need for success on standardized tests with the infusion of the love of historical studies in our students. We should be the inspiration for future generations to engage in the art of historical study, inspiring them to continue to go beyond the nuts and bolts. To infuse our students with the romance that comes along with historical study is just as much our charge as filling them with names and dates and facts.
As students, we should try and see beyond the nuts and bolts and find out who these people really were. What were their motivations, what drove them? We should be looking to pull back the curtain of time, attempting to see behind the mists. That is where the true story resides and that is what we should be seeking in our study.
Yes, I know that this is a rather romantic view of the study of history, but so what? Who doesn’t love a little romance? In the words of Diodorus, the study of history is “a handmaid of Providence, a priestess of truth, and a mother of life”. Who would argue with him?