14 June 2012

Humanizing History


One area where I think much of the education that I had could be vastly improved upon is in the social sciences (particularly history). I feel as though I was taught history as a list of objective facts, essentially, "In this year this happened, that made this person upset who shot this person and then this other person gave a famous speech and we had a war." We get this advice that we are doomed to repeat history if we don't know it, but yet history is taught in such a way as merely a bunch of facts to be memorized. Maybe it is the best we have, but I think we can do better. I thus want to take a moment to reflect on my experiences with history education, just to think about it if nothing else.

Below is a TED talk about building US-China relations with a banjo, and it begins to illustrate what I am thinking:

US-China relations needs lawyers, sure, but it also needs people to connect with each other, as the above video shows. This need is illustrated in part by ideas such as the Peace Corps, where Americans interacting with people abroad is suppose to be helping to break down stereotypes and build a sort of ground-up relationship between countries.

This human element is where history classes could have hit so much deeper than I feel it did for me. History education, like literature education, should be in part to teach about the human condition. I see history as sort of teaching societies' trials and errors, to help explain where we are now, and to be a reflection upon the human condition so we are better prepared to handle the human condition. I'm still young, and history class likely still has other roles to play, but those are what I have seen so far. If we want to teach those three things, better incorporating the human condition is necessary to making history education more powerful.

This past semester I took Introduction to African American Studies. It was an excellent class, and with the instructor I had there was a strong history focus. That history was taught in a way that was completely different from how I remember learning history in high school. We watched movies; we read snippets of people's accounts. History, in this way, felt human. We heard people discuss how they felt about what had happened around them - how they had experienced it. We saw modern people living in societies far different than what we are used to, discussing how they experienced reality. It was human and personal. When I think back to my history classes in high school, it feels like it was impersonal. Merely a list of facts that happened. Reflecting now, I don't think I ever had this strong feeling that people lived through the horrible and great moments of history. In a few literature classes I felt this, but in history class it rarely popped up.

Especially with American history and modern (post-1492) history, we have records. Detailed records. People left journals, journals where they poured onto paper how they experienced their world. We have newspapers, letters to editors, speeches. History happened to real people, and we could infuse that reality into our education.

Every aspect of our education should work together. We should be able to draw parallels across the subject lines. I think history and literature are two where we could make those parallels very easy to see. These can then spill into other subjects. I want to note that the sciences are not immune from this humanization either. During the education I have received in the sciences, scientists often come up. Knowing where ideas come from is an important resource. I like that we teach in this way because later, when doing literature reviews or looking for potential major professors, or what have you, connecting people and ideas is very useful. Scientists being taught is also important in connecting people to science.

When I think of literature, the fact that Truman Capote was taught and acknowledged as Gay (regardless of what I thought of his work or the fact that we read other LGBTQ authors but weren't told - I really wish Tennessee Williams in particular had been acknowledged because I LOVED his work), was important in connecting me into some of the literature we read. This is why it is so important to read works by people other than dead straight white men (granted we should read some straight white men, they just shouldn't be all we read!). I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings has been one of the most powerful books I ever read for school. Yet I'm going off on a tangent. Teaching the contributions of women and racial minorities in the sciences (and for that matter all subjects) is an absolute must. Women and people of color have had a profound impact on the sciences, even with the disadvantages faced in these fields.

Purdue president France Cordova, in her last lecture, noted that growing up she felt women couldn't go into physics, and it kept her out of physics for a while. The humanization of scientific history is thus important. In one of my classes I watched a video concerning Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the structure of DNA. The severe disadvantage that she was put at for being a woman in science and yet her contribution to biology is huge. Even now I don't feel most classes put her at the level she deserves for her work (the praise is still mostly given to Watson and Crick and only in a few cases has she ever been mentioned). This humanization is important. The recognition that scientists are people is also important in how the field moves forward and building a system in which work and family aren't at odds with one another and more people can contribute.

Realizing that people lived through history is important not just for history but for other fields. It is important to give people role models and examples. It is important to show the hardships that people have lived through. It is important to truly illustrate the human condition. Humanizing our history and being true to who made major advances in science, history, literature, et cetera is important. It helps people connect. It shows people they can be a part of society. It is also being truthful.

In education, as in foreign affairs, we can lay a foundation from the bottom up. It is important to form those person-to-person connections, whether across space such as with US-China relations, or across time, such as with the illustration of what people have lived through and the accomplishments they have made. I think the connections across subjects would also be much more clear. I wish my history education had been more person, and I am incredibly grateful for the personal elements that I did get.

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