'You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It'

How can high-school history teachers make the unfinished story of America a global conversation, not just a monologue with ourselves?

It's hard enough to teach American history in a one-year course. To teach American history almost as an adjunct to world history is virtually impossible, I would have to say, in the time allotted. That does not mean the attempt shouldn't be made, but I think one doesn't want to swing all the way to the other extreme and say, "Oh well, the nation state doesn't matter anymore, it's obsolete, and therefore that shouldn't be a building block of historical study." The nation state is still here and will be for a good while, I think, despite the economic, cultural, intellectual globalization that has been going on. I guess I have a mixed reaction to that. On the one hand, yes, students need to have a broad‑minded perspective and not a parochial or chauvinistic one. On the other hand, it's easier to say “let’s globalize the study of history” than to do it.

What are your thoughts on any new approaches to heighten the interest of students at all levels, including high school?

There are different pedagogical approaches all over the place. There are many younger historians, much younger than I am, who are more familiar with using social media as part of history teaching—using all sorts of Internet and other resources in classrooms. I'm sure that can be very positive, although it might become distracting. My experience as a teacher and as a student long ago, is that there is no substitute for a good teacher. I don't care what bells and whistles that you're using, it's the teacher in the classroom. That's why I'm a little skeptical about MOOCs, online education. I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that the presence of a teacher is actually critical to learning.

I'm less interested in pedagogical approaches than the training of the teacher, the ability of the teacher, the knowledge of the teacher, and the teacher's ability to inspire students by conveying his or her own enthusiasm for the subject. That hasn't actually changed nearly as much as the technology of education has.

Do you have other specific advice for what teachers can do to more effectively instruct history students?

The first thing I would say is that we have to get away from the idea that any old person can teach history. A lot of the history teachers in this country are actually athletic coaches. I mention this in class, and students always say, "Oh yeah, Coach Smith, he taught my history course." Why? Well, Coach Smith is the football coach, and in the spring he's not doing much, and they say, "Well, put him in the history course, he can do that."

They wouldn't put him in a French course, or a physics course. The number-one thing is, you have to know history to actually teach it. That seems like an obvious point, but sometimes it's ignored in schools. Even more than that, I think it's important that people who are teaching history do have training in history. A lot of times people have education degrees, which have not actually provided them with a lot of training in the subject. They know a lot about methodology. [That’s] important, but as I say, the key thing is really to love the subject, to be able to convey that to your students, and if you can do that, I think you'll be a great teacher.


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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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