'You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It'

An interview with Eric Foner, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.
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George Peter Alexander Healy/Wikimedia Commons

It’s tough for a historian to earn the adoration of both academia and popular culture, but Eric Foner has managed to do it. His books on American history are assigned reading at universities and colleges across the country. Reviewers have praised his work as “monumental in scope” and declared that it “approaches brilliance.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2011 book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery—and appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss it. (In addition, I can’t overstate the lasting influence that Foner has had on my career as a high-school history teacher. I constantly refer to his growing body of work when teaching students not only original thinking, but also effective writing and analysis. I’ve also used his textbook to teach Advanced Placement United States History with terrific results.)

I recently spoke to Foner about the teachers who influenced him and how high-school history teachers can better prepare students for college.


You’ve spoken of how as a history student, many professors inspired you and your career, such as James Shenton and your dissertation adviser, the legendary Richard Hofstadter. What did you learn from them about what makes a great teacher?

I tell my students nowadays who are in graduate school and going on to become teachers—the number one thing is to have a real passion for your subject and to be able to convey that to your students. Obviously the content is important, but that's not as unusual as being able to really convey why you think history is important. I think that's what inspires students. Shenton was a great teacher, not really a very productive scholar in terms of writing, but a wonderful classroom teacher [who] inspired many, many students, myself among them.

Hofstadter was a little different. Hofstadter was not an inspiring classroom teacher. He was actually a very modest man. What I learned from Hofstadter was the craft of writing. He was a brilliant writer, he was a great critic, and he really taught the importance of taking language seriously, to think through the words you use, to rewrite. It's in the rewriting that the craft of writing really begins and the word choice, and the organization, and how to use quotations, and how to present evidence. The literary aspect of history is something that I really learned to value from Hofstadter.

Where should high-school teachers place more emphasis on the skills of history—the literary aspect of it, or the actual content?

I respect what high-school teachers do enormously. They have a much harder job than we do at the college level. I think both are important. I'm strongly in favor of students knowing the facts of history, not just memorizing or having it drilled into their heads. I'm certainly against this testing mania that's going on now where you can judge whether someone really understands history by their performance on a multiple-choice test.

Knowledge of the events of history is important, obviously, but also I think what I see in college students, that seems to be lacking at least when they come into college, is writing experience. In other words, being able to write that little essay with an argument. I see that they think, "OK, there are the facts of history and that's it—what more is there to be said?" But of course, the very selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation. You can't just separate fact and interpretation quite as simply as many people seem to think. I would love to see students get a little more experience in trying to write history, and trying to understand why historical interpretation changes over time.

Is an emphasis on rote memorization lessening student interest in history, and making the field seem less relevant to younger generations?

I think it probably is. There are many reasons for that. I think there's a general tendency in education nowadays toward what you might call the pragmatic side of education, which is fine. The students need to have jobs eventually, no question about it. But education is not just a vocational enterprise—teaching people the skills that will enable them to get jobs--although that's obviously part of it. [We]'re also teaching citizens. We try to teach people the skills that come along with studying history. The skills of evaluating evidence, of posing questions and answering them, of writing, of mobilizing information in order to make an argument. I think all of that is important in a democratic society if people are actually going to be active citizens. Teaching to the test does not really encourage emphasis on those aspects of the study of history.

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David Cutler teaches history and journalism at Brimmer and May in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He writes regularly about education at SpinEdu.

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