Kurt Falter: Making History Relevant and Engaging

Kurt Falter

Kurt Falter ’18

“All right class, take out your notebooks and copy these terms down on the board . . . now take out your answers to Chapter 2’s questions and we’ll review them . . . read Chapter 3 for homework and answer the comprehension questions I assigned . . .”

There’s a good chance that you have been in at least one history class that followed this bland pattern, and chances are you hated the class because of it. I too have been in similar classes, and if it weren’t for my previous experiences with more engaging classes, I’d probably be turned off from the subject of history as well. It really is no wonder that such an emphasis on rote learning memorization often makes history one of the least favored of all academic subjects.

As someone who plans to teach history and politics, it baffles me that this approach is still used today. History is far from just dates, names and specific facts that one must memorize; it is a subject so rich in content, themes and stories that most educators barely skim the surface of. For instance, during my freshman year we were covering World War II, the event that first sparked my love of history; however, the professor never strayed from what the course textbook talked about in her PowerPoints; she never brought in outside information from other sources; and she rarely gave challenging activities to us. What should have been an engaging topic became another disappointment.

In this post, I outline three distinct characteristics that make successful history teachers. I’ve based these off of exemplary teachers I have had in the past and that I have observed.

Be Specific – Use Primary Sources

If you’re going to teach about the past, then you must utilize the tools of the past; and, as a history professor, those tools should primarily be the voices of those whom you study from primary source documents. Without primary sources, the study of history becomes nothing; we form our understandings of the past from people who have come before us.

Primary source analysis is beneficial in two key ways. First, it offers students a break from the rote content in PowerPoints they’ve been watching and writing notes about. I’m sure most students would like to hear the actual words and attitude Winston Churchill had towards the Second World War than learn about it from their course textbook(s). Second, the activity that comes with the source analysis allows students to practice their historical thinking by putting what they know into practice. Whether they are guided by questions, group work or class discussions, the activity should require students to synthesize their background knowledge with whatever is written in the text.

This semester in one of my politics class, we examined Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech. For a speech whose most significant part is around two paragraphs long, we spent nearly 30 minutes dissecting the speech for deeper meaning, the significance of its grammatical structure, etc. Granted, not all sources warrant a 30-minute analysis of the kind, but some do, at least in conjunction with others or with specific themes. The study and learning of history all tie back to primary sources

Be Relevant – Make History Matter

“When am I ever going to use this?”

Countless individuals (including myself at some times) I’m sure have uttered this phrase at one point or another. The current trend in higher education favors practicality and STEM subjects, all at the expense of the liberal arts; the worth that anything has is determined by how useful and well-paying it can be. This approach unfortunately places many subjects, such as English and history, in an unfair position; if our society is dictating that STEM is more important than any other subject, then how can students take history seriously?

Yet this very mindset underestimates history. There is a reason George Santayana once said “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; every single issue we face in our world today is rooted in a larger historical one. Look no further than the issue of Confederate statues in our country.  What’s all the fuss about? Is their removal trying to erase the past? Do they symbolize something horrible? We can’t answer these questions within only a STEM mindset–only history can do that.

Professors must make topics relevant to something larger in our society today. Is more direct democracy harmful to our larger society? The lessons of populism give us these ideas and historical framework. Does raising the minimum wage do more harm than good to our economy? Again, showing students how the past still influences the present proves that history is not some abstract subject; it exists around us everywhere.

Be Controversial – Make Good Citizens

If making history relevant isn’t enough to capture student attention, then focusing on controversial topics should be another approach. The subjects of history and politics often deal with hot topic issues. Do LGBT rights clash too much with religious freedom? Can America justify her treatment of Third World countries during the Cold War? Are the days of immigration to America over? These are the kind of topics students should be exposed to, for they dominate today’s press and continue to influence American politics. Unfortunately, many professors shy away from this approach, specifically because they feel the certain subject matter is either not appropriate, or that they don’t want students to feel ostracized or emotionally hurt by the topics discussed.

By shying away from these topics, teachers commit a grave disservice to their students; they prevent them from thinking critically and openly by shutting down any chance to talk about important subject matter. How can we expect to raise thoughtful American citizens if they do not have the chance to think about and examine these critical issues? One history class I was in had the teacher spend the whole class period asking the student’s opinions of the 2016 election. Naturally, such a topic immediately raises red flags, but the discussion that I witnessed in the class was one of the most energetic and vigorous I’ve ever witnessed. Many students are willing to discuss these topics, especially when it involves beliefs that they hold dear.

In regard to the concern that such topics will hurt the class community, it is essential that the professor first build a strong classroom community throughout the year before such topics are discussed. As Carly Wheaton discussed in her post, students in a close community are more willing to participate and work with others when they know they can trust and treat each other with respect. Once this is established, the discussion of controversial topics should be no problem.

Yes, not every lesson you teach in history will be some Broadway performance; there will be some that you’ll just have to grind through. But there are many other times where utilizing any of these three characteristics will make a huge difference in instilling meaningful learning in your students.