The Need to Re-Evaluate the Teaching of History:
With parents who both have their PhDs within the broad field of African history, I grew up surrounded by history in Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire). Not only were there always mini mountains of papers waiting to be graded and days my parents were gone listening to dissertation defenses, but history felt very alive in a context where the world was shifting around me and the connections between the past, present, and future felt very intertwined and vibrant. In this context, my curiosity about history was born and then has been nurtured as I have lived in various contexts around the world, from the United States of America (Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Colorado) and Egypt (Cairo) to stints in Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, and Tanzania before our family’s move to Uganda five years ago.
In that time, the world of information changed. When I was a child, my “go-to” person was my father for pretty much any information. He was our human encyclopedia (for all but sports facts or music post-1950). When I was in university, Wikipedia was launched. Although we playfully called my dad “Wikidad,” we knew that even my dad wasn't as smart as Wikipedia when it came down to sheer knowledge “at your fingertips.”
When I went to university and majored in history, my favorite professors didn’t claim to know everything in terms of the content. Instead, they taught me key skills to navigate this historical content. They taught me how to research, to analyze, to grapple with various perspectives, and then to synthesize them into cogent historical arguments. They inspired curiosity and encouraged/equipped me to know how to inquire about the things that interested me.
This shift from the role of a historian being a “fount of knowledge” to a “teacher of historical skills” doesn’t bother me. Instead, it demands a re-evaluation of the why of history.
In a recent post on the International Baccalaureate (IB) Exchange, my fellow co-moderator on the history platform asked this question, “What are some of the specifics, however, that you would emphasize about DP [diploma program] history in this context? Why should students take History in Group 3 in your view?” For the non-IB educators out there, the IB’s Group 3 (called individuals and societies) subjects in the DP, are human science classes like history, geography, economics, business management, etc. Students are required to take at least one, but they have many choices, depending on the school’s options. Thus, in this context of student and school choice, a re-evaluation of the why of history is also demanded.
Some Thoughts on Why History Remains Such a Key Subject:
So, in this changing world of knowledge and education, why do I feel students should do history? And believe me, I profoundly believe this! Despite history’s challenging skills, or perhaps because of at times, I think it’s so key for our students as they navigate a nuanced and complex world!
I am also an enthusiastic teacher of Theory of Knowledge (ToK), a fantastic IB class that asks students and schools to explore why we know what we know, giving students tools to thoughtfully question the very education they are receiving. In this class, I have a list of six statements (inspired by my ToK mentor, Steve Kern, a long-time ToK educator in Colorado) that explain why I believe in ToK’s importance, feel it is practically useful for students, and encapsulate my “goals” for the course and for my students. Every year, I discuss these statements with my ToK Students at the beginning and at the end of their ToK journeys.
In this post, I will try to do the same for history, drawing some inspiration from some of my ToK statements. Here’s an attempt:
DP history students, I hope that by the end of the history journey, you are able to confidently understand/express the following:
6. Understanding often carries with it the responsibility to act ethically upon the knowledge I have.