The Mirror of History

THE MIRROR OF HISTORY….Yesterday I wrote a post about math education that attracted a lot of interesting comments, including a couple from a Fields Medal winner. (My new motto: “Calpundit ? Home of Commentary from Fields Winners!”) That was pretty cool, so today I think I’ll try another pedagogical category: history.

This is a subject that I talk about frequently with my mother (an actual teacher, mind you), trying to figure out why it’s such a disliked subject. After all, we like history, but surveys routinely show that it’s the least liked subject, ranking even below obvious suspects like math and spelling.

Why is it so disliked? Who knows, really, but it’s probably because it seems so remote from normal life. It’s pretty hard, after all, for most teenagers to get very enthused about a long-ago debate over the Missouri Compromise that has only the most tenuous connection to the present day.

So in the true spirit of blogging (especially weekend blogging!), here’s my dumb amateur idea about how to teach history: do it backward.

It’s hard for kids to get interested in century old debates without knowing all the context around them, but they might very well be interested in current day events. So why not start now and explain the events that got us here? War on terrorism? Sure, let’s teach it, and that leads us backward to a discussion of how the current state of affairs is the successor to the bipolar world that came apart in 1989. And that leads back to the Cold War, and that leads back to World War II, etc.

In other words, invert cause and effect. Try to get them wondering about the causes of things they already know about, and then use this curiosity to lead them inexorably backward through history.

This is for teenagers, of course, not grammar school kids, who are probably best off with pilgrims, ancient Egyptians, and other picturesque topics. But it might work in high school and junior high school.

All we need now is to get a brilliant historian together with the guy who directed Memento and we’ll have it made. We can call it “The Mirror of History.”

UPDATE: Over at Atrios, a commenter makes the point that recent history isn’t really even taught at all in high school, let alone as part of a broader history curriculum. As Atrios suggests, this is probably because recent history is so overtly political that it’s hard to teach it without offending a lot of parents, but even so, how ridiculous is this? Really, which is more important: understanding the American Revolution or understanding the Cold War? An entire year devoted to understanding the most recent few decades of history would probably be one of the most valuable classes a kid could have.

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