'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.
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.

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.

 

Presented by

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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