All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


30 November 2011

From the Archives: Teaching History

I probably don't blog enough to warrant titling a post "From the Archives", but I was re-reading some comments by an Anonymous commenter to my post about History which, oddly, is by far the most trafficked post on my blog since I started it up again earlier this year.

Anyway, here's the relevant portion of the comment:

The whole business of studying history is to upset everything we reflexively believe.

* * * *

And the job of educators is to bring unreflective practice into line with more current, sophisticated research and thinking.

The comment itself is mostly on a tangential issue to the original post, and I'm not really interested in its substance, anyway. I'm concerned with the underlying view of "education" that I see represented in the two excerpted sentences. If it were just one sentence, I'd think, "Eh, whatever. Off the cuff writing." But two sentences makes it seem like something the writer actually believes.

And I think he's wrong.

You see, I tend to think that it is the job of educators -- history and otherwise -- to do their best to speak the truth. And sometimes the truth is what we reflexively believe. (Actually, this is true a lot more than it is false -- we've got VERY good instincts about the truth.) I also think that sometimes the truth is not in line with the "more current, sophisticated research and thinking" and various subjects, even assuming that one could come up with some objective measure of which thinking is more 'sophisticated'.

We have a saying in Philosophy that I've heard at least five different ways, but it always boils down to the same thing: say the true things, and try not to say the false things.

Lots of very smart, sophisticated people think that Rawls' Theory of Justice is right. If it's right, then it's right. But if it's right, it's right because it accurately states the truth about morality and social governance. It's not the fact that lots of smart people think it is right that makes it so, and in fact -- as a very smart person myself -- I happen to think it's mostly malarkey. Well written and thought out malarkey, but fundamentally mistaken.

One problem with some of our teachers might be (is that enough qualification?) that a lot of them see the study of various subjects as the mastery of a body of dogma rather than an excursion into the truth. Some history teachers are teaching a body of facts. Some English teachers are teaching points 3 through 7 of the Style Guide. Some teachers would be incapable of giving a cogent explanation of why what they are teaching is important. (Which is why students love asking that question so much -- it's so often a stumper.)

Our only concern in education should be the truth. Not being "current" or "sophisticated", not being revolutionary or upsetting our reflexive paradigms. And not meeting some political agenda, he mutters wearily.

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