Teach historiography in high school!

In my last post I outlined four take-aways on how to teach more than just narrative in a history classroom. I want to focus on the third take-away, teaching historiography in high school.

I was not introduced to historiography until I was in my junior year of college. I had been studying abroad at Oxford and was working on an independent study focused around Indian decolonization for one of the courses. It was in the context of the Cambridge School vs. Indian Nationalist School vs. Subaltern School that I was introduced to the methods and philosophical substructure of historical writing. My professor assigned an article by the late Cambridge historian John Gallagher, titled the Imperialism of Free Trade, which I credit with establishing historiography as one of my defining interests.

In my graduate school methods seminar I was able to explore historiography in much greater detail. Several of the new graduate students, myself included, were eager to find a philosophical approach that could “define” us and, though I wouldn’t admit it at the time, give us a sense of intellectual ego. I initially latched on to Foucault, maintained a curious interest in the Marxist approach, but thoroughly enjoyed the methods of world history, transnational history, micro-history, the cultural turn, and everything else along the way. I eventually gave up the pretense of aligning myself with a particular school given I was a lowly graduate student who produced no original research had no need to claim allegiance to any flag. This continues today as I am constantly exploring new content and new approaches. As evidence, a few years ago I went down the rabbit hole of cliodynamics, the use of data and mathematical modeling to analyze historical trends. Peter Turchin’s work on the rise and fall of empires (I highly recommend it) has become an annual addition to my AP World lessons.

I think reading and discussing historiography is excellent professional development for history teachers. Most history teacher’s don’t need PD on factual content, but can gain a lot by staying abreast of new research and thinking within their fields. Likewise, my point to the story of my own discovery of historiography is to relay the intellectual joy that I experienced through exploring behind the curtain and into history’s backstage.

Seeing the methods and philosophical traditions that uphold the creation of narrative is an important lesson for any student of history. Interpretation is an act that is debated and ever-evolving, unlike most historical facts. Students often criticize class when memorization of fact or canned analysis is the purpose with lines like “I can google this” or “All of this information is on my cell phone.” Historiography, like historical thinking, can be explored, discussed, or even practiced; it makes for more engaging and more applicable lessons and outcomes.

I like the analogy one of my graduate professors used to describe historiography and set historians apart from other social scientists. He said that whereas many social scientists are concerned about the consistency and universal applicability of their particular theory, historians take the theories, zap both historical fact and the historical record with them like mad scientists and record their findings through the narrative or their analysis. Of course, most historians’ philosophical or methodological choices are made for far more serious reasons, but the analogy has stuck with me.

Entry-Points for Historiography in High School

Now, I am not suggesting that we introduce high school students to Foucault, Gramsci, or the finer points of post-modernism; Just mentioning the Marxist approach in the current climate of the US culture wars will likely have some parents calling you to be fired as if using a reading from Marcus Rediker is the same thing as passing out communist propaganda. (I’ve told parents that you don’t have to have complete buy-in to a certain methodology to enjoy reading it or to question it.) What I am suggesting is that there are many strategies and entry points in most history courses where students can be introduced to the structure of historiography and its basic concepts. These “hooks” can serve to capture the student’s interest in history throughout their life, but can also deepen their ability to analyze alternative viewpoints and get them discussing ideas and modes of thinking. In my experience, students respond to such a compelling challenge. Below are some strategies or entry points I have used.

Howard Zinn & Bottom-Up Social History

Regardless of your opinions on Howard Zinn’s work, his People’s History is highly readable and very certain in its analysis. There is not much in the book that is gray, making it easier for students to grasp his argument and how/why he got there. There is plenty of opportunity to get students discussing Zinn’s use of evidence, his political philosophy and values, and the way he constructs his narrative.

I think it is best to pair Zinn with other sources, both secondary and primary, so that students are not steamrolled by Zinn’s overwhelming certainty. For the entry-point to be valuable students need to have room (and the tools) to question his narrative.

I use Howard Zinn’s work, and the opposing argument I pair it with, to introduce simple historiographical concepts such as social history, cultural history, top-down history, bottom-up history, etc. I also teach some of the simpler schools of thought that students can use to question or compare with Zinn such as Consensus History. It’s not meant to be the final say on historiography, just an entry-point that can be built on later in the year. Maybe you don’t want to use Zinn…that’s OK, there are plenty of other ways to squeeze in historiography.

Causation: Individual Action vs. Historical Conditions

In a previous post I went into detail about how I like to approach teaching causation. Once students already understand the interplay between individual actions and historical conditions in causing change, this framework of analysis can become an entry point to historiography.

Although there is very little “Great Man History” still being written, this is an easy outgrowth of a historian valuing a particular kind of individual agency in creating his narrative. Likewise, a tendency to focus on conditions or systems that drive historical development can lead alternative narratives. I like to approach these two concepts as a continuum, selecting excerpts that can be analyzed using this framework. From this point it is very easy to branch out to other historiographical issues that historians have to deal with.

Below is one such guiding question that I use with this continuum. There are other simple concepts that can work with the continuum approach to get students discussing a historians values and methods.

I have not found a historian that is purely one or the other. The value here is not in the exact placement on the continuum, but on the discussion of the writing under investigation. For an added challenge you can use a triangle and introduce a third component; Group agency and decision making or the role of chance and the irrational being options I have used.

Marxist History

Teaching in China, I quickly realized that most of the history my Chinese national students had come across was of the Marxist persuasion. When words and phrases like proletariat, class consciousness, and means of production started appearing in 9th grade essays and DBQs on ancient Rome I quickly put together they were making liberal use of baidu for their arguments.

For both my AP World students and the seniors who took my US History course I used this experience with Marxism as an entry point into historiography. Karl Marx always comes up when discussing the industrial revolution, and so its an easy extension to take a look at how his base-superstructure model can be applied to the writing of history. Likewise, many parts of Howard Zinn’s work clearly fits this model.

Once again, providing an alternative interpretation and doing a side-by-side analysis helps students see the differences in approaches more clearly. It is also an opportunity to show how historians are products of their time and the philosophical and contextual developments of their age will naturally influence their historical methods and values. Marxist history makes more sense when considering the context of the 1840s. There are plenty of activities, protocols, and strategies to structure this learning and discussion.

I also like assigning a chapter from Marcus Rediker’s work, my favorite being Villains of all Nations. There’s not much contemporary Marxist history produced anymore, and his writing on pirates is highly readable and very interesting. Students generally appreciate having the opportunity to be challenged with interesting excerpts that go beyond a usual textbook survey. What is gained in depth and critical thinking is well-worth the time invested.

Socratic Seminars & Harkness Discussions

No, I will not be making an argument for which method of classroom discussion is best. Sometimes it will depend on the students, often it depends on the teacher’s skill set and comfort with a particular protocol. However, you can and should use discussions to instruct and assess historiography and its methods.

Students need to interact with interpretations of actual historians. Being exposed to such material can help remedy the problems of over-reliance on primary sources. Turning students into historical detectives and having them actually do the same investigations as professional historians is great, but doing so without models ignores the reality that students lack the context, content knowledge, and inference power of professionals. Some of the articles and book excerpts I have used and have had success with are below. Each was read independently and then was the focus of various class activities that always culminated in a Socratic seminar or similar discussion protocol.

One book that I am looking forward to using an excerpt from this year, which came recommended by a new colleague, is “Deadly Companions” by Dorothy Crawford. The author is a microbiologist who has written on a history of the black death. I don’t completely share the dislike of some when non-historians write history. It gives historians an opportunity to both reflect on their own practice and remain open to the insights that other disciplines inevitably have.

At some point in the learning progression students need an opportunity to read, unpack, and discuss something heavier than the textbook. Ultimately we learn and improve by copying those who are better than us. Let’s let students learn from more than just the sterile, albeit approved, textbook.

This week’s coffee shop…

Bear Paw Coffee – Times Square, Shanghai

I did not do any writing at this coffee shop since it was more of a coffee stand. However, I wanted to visit after I read an article about it in a local English language news service. The main workers, and part owners, are two twin brothers who are blind. The inside of the coffee stand is small, but designed so they can operate it by memory and touch. It was impressive to watch them work, and the coffee was great.

The Bear Paw coffee chain apparently has a few other branches around Shanghai, and the founder had, as one of his main intentions, the desire to offer jobs to differently abled individuals. I look forward to visiting other branches.

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