Why History Is the Toughest Subject to Teach

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Alia spotlighted that major screwup from publisher McGraw Hill (seen above) in her piece last week addressing how high-school textbooks “too often gloss over the American government’s oppression of racial minorities.” She continues:

If nothing else, the [McGraw Hill] incident may serve as yet another example of why social studies—and history in particular—is such a tricky subject to teach, at least via textbooks and multiple-choice tests. Its topics are inherently subjective, impossible to distill into paragraphs jammed with facts and figures alone. As the historian and sociologist Jim Loewen recently told me, in history class students typically “have to memorize what we might call ‘twigs.’ We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees,” said Loewen, best known for his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. “We are teaching twig history.”

The article sparked a lot of discussion, which you can join using hello@theatlantic.com. Here’s one reader with a lot of experience in education:

I earned a Master’s Degree in History and largely agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. The issue of high school social studies has long been a thorn in the side of academic history and historians, primarily for the reasons Alia Wong listed—e.g. “licensed” history teachers only being required to take lower level college history courses, none of which involve any substantive or original research with primary sources. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of teaching historiography to high school students. When I substitute taught in high school, I was disgusted with the history teaching methods I encountered, which often involved rote memorization of a bunch of facts more suitable to bar room trivia at Buffalo Wild Wings than learning about the root causes of, say, the French Revolution.

The only issue with which I struggle, is how to teach all the different, and sometimes contrary, perspectives in a time efficient way.

Simply put, teachers don’t have the time to teach every legitimate historical perspective. Hell, this is the same issue professional historians wrestle with when writing their books. One simply can’t include every historical perspective in a single work, otherwise the book would take an entire lifetime or more to write! Moreover, teaching too many perspectives at the high school level might be overwhelming to kids who lack even a basic historical narrative. There has to be a happy medium out there.

I do think we need to move cautiously, however, to ensure that we aren’t developing an “oppression history” that constructs its narrative in opposition to the establishment or so-called “white history.” To do so would yield a historical narrative that is grossly oversimplified and dangerous, much like the current oversimplified history that Wong critiques.

As an aside, it still surprises me today when I see the look of confusion on people’s faces when they discover the subjectivity of history. The historian will always be limited by his or her own personal worldview, which invariably makes its way into the historical narrative. It is why academic historians often make every effort to at least point out their own biases and limitations.

The reader follows up:

I believe part of the problem has to do with the design of many university education degrees. Am I the only one who thinks it’s very bizarre for a person to get a history education degree but not require that person to take more advanced level courses in the subject they are aiming to teach? ((I have friends who’ve done this very thing.) I’m sorry, but my personal belief is that one learns history best by actually doing history, which for most people would occur by, at the very least, taking upper-level history classes. I don’t believe relying solely on some training seminar designed at the school district level is a valid way to teach teachers how to teach history, especially if they already lack the subject knowledge.

I’ve been fortunate enough to lecture at the collegiate level and teach at the high school level, and the method of instruction at the high school level centers on the memorization of historical facts, a product of unqualified teachers. Similarly I’ve also seen the tremendous amount of pressure on teachers regarding standardized tests, pressure that people at the collegiate level don’t appreciate. Still, the use of rote memorization has been a mainstay in history classrooms long before standardized tests came along.

One more followup:

I don’t believe it should be a requirement that high school history teachers have a Master’s Degree, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. I’m saying that people getting a education degree in a particular subject should have to take more undergraduate classes on that subject. For example, my alma mater required people getting a History Education degree to take HIS 101, HIS 102, HIS 201, and HIS 202. That’s it. Period. The rest of their classes were education classes. So, all they had to take was 12 hours of history, the equivalent to one semester. At my university, one didn’t start delving into historical philosophy and research methodologies until HIS 300.

I think it would behoove students earning an education degree to have to take upper level courses in the subject they are aiming to teach. I know my school isn’t the only one, either. I’ve spoken with several people whose College of Education departments operated similarly.