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Reading, Writing And History

July 2024
7min read

The brave mortal who makes the teaching of history his profession labors under many of the disadvantages that beset the editor of a newspaper. There is no set formula for him to follow, which is just another way of saying that there is no one right way for him to behave because in the end so much of his effectiveness depends on his ability to play it by ear. He has to have a wide background of training and experience, yet the real value of all of this depends on his ability to add insights and perceptions of his own, in which nobody can instruct him. Finally, he is forever aware that many of his fellow citizens consider him a dull bungler and honestly believe that they themselves could do his job much better than he does if they just set their minds to it.

It is this last point, probably, which is the heaviest cross to bear. Just as the editor cannot spend a week without hearing about all of the things that are wrong with newspapers, so the historian must constantly listen to complaints that history is not being properly taught anymore—if, indeed, it ever was. The fact that both editor and historian occasionally suspect gloomily that the critics speak from a complete lack of knowledge does not help very much. The ballplayer who pops up in a pinch is rarely comforted by the realization that the spectators who jeer at him are themselves hopelessly inexpert athletes.

It is of course true that there is much defective teaching, just as there is much defective editing—and, for the matter of that, much defective bricklaying, doctoring, cabinet-making, and ditch-digging. But the teacher has an especial handicap. He is obliged to spend much of his time trying to impart a little knowledge to young people who, if their own wishes were freely consulted, would much rather be doing something else. American youth is doubtless eager to learn, but it does not like the means by which learning is acquired. It detests discipline, but discipline it gets. What teacher does not know the feeling that the youngsters who face him are sitting there, stony of face and stonier of heart, silently defying him to arouse their interest?

It is natural, in such case, for the teacher to conclude finally that these empty vessels in front of him are simply unresponsive receptacles into which he must cram as many facts as possible—by brute force, if necessary—and whether these facts are understood and digested matters not; cram them in, conduct periodic tests to see whether they have at least been retained for a given length of time, and let it go at that. If, in the end, the subject under discussion is walled off for the rest of the student’s life in a deep crypt to which neither memory nor comprehension ever returns, that is just too bad. At least the facts were once rammed home.

This, to be sure, is a bad way to teach history or anything else. It does happen this way, here and there, for history teachers are not bloodless and at times they react to their environment as normal human beings react. But it does not happen as often as the critics say it does; for history teachers have discovered that the student who is invited to prowl around on his own hook in the corridors of history—even the student at the grade or high school level—usually responds with genuine interest. He still deals with facts, to be sure, and many of them are not facts which ordinarily would arouse his enthusiasm; but when he is invited to dig them up for himself, and is shown how the mere process of digging puts him in touch with the dreams and hopes and struggles of people of the past, he usually comes to see that the study of history is not so much a discipline as a fascinating adventure.

When this happens, one more person reaches the point at which he gains a better understanding of himself, his country, and the infinite mystery of human society. In other words, he begins to learn something about history.

Two recent developments lead to this bit of cerebration. One development was entirely accidental and unexpected.

There came recently to the editors of this magazine a letter from a lad named Christopher Brown who is in his last year at Haverford, a preparatory school near Philadelphia. Brown enclosed a list of questions ( see page 96 ) which, as a student in a course in American history, he was called on to answer; he was stumped by some of them, and could the editors of this magazine on history shed any light across his path?

The questions seemed vicious and stuffy. They called for answers which a good many professional historians could not give without going first to their reference books—the identification of obscure personalities and events, the explanation of excessively minor developments in the American story, the recitation of unimportant bits of information which even a welleducated man could hardly be expected to carry in his mind. If students at the high school level were being expected to memorize the data which would enable them to answer such questions, then it seemed clear that something was radically wrong with the teaching of history. So we wrote to Brown and asked him, in substance: What is this all about?

The answer shed additional light, which made everything look different. The questions were not part of an examination. Rather, they constituted a termpaper project; that is, they were given to the student and he was asked to spend the next few weeks finding the answers, specifying (in his term paper) where and how he had found them—and suddenly it became clear that the teacher of this particular class knew precisely what he was about. For there is an immense difference between expecting a student to store, in the upper attic of his mind, all of the useless lumber which would enable him to survive the cruel test of a radio quiz program, and the business of giving him the questions ahead of time and telling him to go and dig until he knew what the answers were. The first would simply put a premium on a retentive memory for unimportant facts; the second would compel him to look into various aspects of the national past and, in the process of finding the answers to specific questions, to absorb a real understanding of what made people tick and how the country got put together.

Young Brown’s letter also gave other evidence. Mr. Donald G. Brownlow, who handed out these 50 questions, was, said this student, “the best teacher in the school.” Why? “Because he makes the people in history seem alive and it is not as though we were studying about statues from a past age. We have learned that heroes are not always heroic but are human most of the time.”

A history teacher who can make his students feel that way is obviously doing his job expertly. The mere fact that the young gentlemen in question may not remember the specific answers for more than a month or two makes no great difference. They have had the experience of digging; and in their own way they have shared in the enormously exciting and rewarding task of the historian, and they have learned that history is not so much a matter of names and dates as of finding out why certain names and dates are memorable.

His parents, this student confessed, were appalled when they saw the list of questions and wanted to know the purpose of such an assignment. “I guess,” he wrote, “it’s to get everyone ‘all shook up.’”

It would be hard to find a better definition of the real reason for the study of history. To get everyone all shook up: isn’t that what we are actually looking for when we urge the importance of this particular discipline? History does not supply the answers to questions so much as it incites its students to go and look for the answers. The search is what is rewarding. The young man (or the adult too, for that matter) who gets all shook up while he is searching is reaping the real reward. When history is taught that way the current criticisms look pale.

The other development that set us musing about the aims and achievements of the study of history came in Oklahoma. In that energetic state, through the co-operation of practically everyone from Senator Robert Kerr down through state and city educators, chambers of commerce, and public-spirited citizens generally, there was recently held an historical essay contest, open to students in grade schools, in high schools, and in colleges and universities. The contest was held in connection with the state’s Golden Jubilee celebration, and A MERICAN H ERITAGE is happy to have had a part in sponsoring it.

The essence of it was that students in the three educational levels were invited to write essays on one aspect or another of their state’s brief but colorful history. These essays had to be based on research; each had to be accompanied by a statement of the sources consulted and the spadework performed. From the avalanche of essays submitted, nine prize winners were selected—three from the grade schools, three from the high schools, and three from the colleges. And the whole business seems to us to have been eminently worth doing.

What do you expect to get out of such a contest? Not deathless prose, surely; it takes time to learn to write flawlessly, most of us never do master the trick, and it is altogether too much to expect a teen-ager to express himself in the language of Parkman or Prescott. Nor do you need to expect historical research of the highest quality, along with a set of papers that will make permanent additions to the state’s archives. The object is much simpler, and in some ways much more important.

What you get is an awakened interest in their own past on the part of many thousands of young people. The youngsters who took part in this contest are better educated now than they were before, not because they have written papers of lasting value but simply because they have taken the trouble to look into the history of their own state, to find out for themselves what happened to whom, and how and why it happened; and because history has, for them, ceased to be a matter of memorizing facts by rote and has instead become an adventure in finding out about human beings. It would be hard to overstate the importance of a venture of this kind. It teaches history in the best possible way—by handing a little piece of it to the student and letting him go out and do his own digging.

It would be pleasant to be able to print all of the prize-winning essays in this magazine—not necessarily because of their literary or historical value, but just because they are samples of the way in which the interest of young people in their own social background can be aroused. To print all of them would take far too much space, of course; but to print one, as representative of the serious effort which young minds put into the whole venture, is a privilege.

Accordingly, A MERICAN H ERITAGE herewith presents, as a sample of the kind of work which Oklahoma’s young students were encouraged to perform, one of the prize-winning essays: a little paper entitled “ The Birth of a Boom Town ,” written by Miss Jane Bryan, a high school student at Seminole, Oklahoma. It follows:


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