HM - November 2019 - Book Review
Book Review: Teaching History, Learning Citizenship
by Jeffery Nokes
Reviewed by Sam Agami
In his new book, Teaching History, Learning Citizenship, Jeffery Nokes seeks to re-shape the way history is perceived and taught as a subject. Nokes sees the problem with history as not just which facts are taught, but WHY those facts are taught. He advocates teaching both knowledge and skills with a purpose. The ultimate purpose of teaching history at all is to encourage civic engagement among citizens. In this book, he not only presents his arguments on behalf of his vision of history instruction, but offers many specific examples of how this could and should be done.
Nokes starts by clearly identifying the problems history instruction faces in the modern age. It is often attacked politically, both from the right and left. He identifies the common conservative argument about “revisionist” history that differs from the way it was taught in the mid-twentieth century. He also laments the attacks made from the left on the “grand historical narrative” criticism that claims history classes ignore or marginalize the contributions made by minorities. Nokes also identifies the pressures history faces from schools that emphasize STEM subjects at the expense of the liberal arts. This is one of the greatest challenges history teachers face today. In the effort to push the merits of learning technology skills, we often get pushed aside. This is a grave error. Not only is what we teach timeless, compared to the rapid expiration date attached to many STEM skills, but a historical perspective is necessary to grapple with the social and ethical issues that the increasing importance of technology creates. Luckily, Nokes has an approach to meet this challenge.
The author’s thesis is that “history classrooms play a vital role in preparing citizens who have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to ensure the survival of democracy.” He sees the problem of history classrooms of the past as emphasizing knowledge at the expense of skills and dispositions. He makes the criticism that memorization of historical facts is mere trivia; that knowledge without the skills to utilize it does not serve the needs of citizenship. In addition, Nokes makes the case that by adding an emphasis on skills and dispositions, the level of students’ knowledge is actually higher than if they focused on knowledge alone.
The author provides many excellent lesson ideas, on a variety of topics to help teachers meet the challenges he has outlined. In these lessons, students learn not only history, but how to defend their own civil rights. These lessons teach collective problem solving to make that happen. Additionally, there are lessons that examine the sacrifices made by individuals and groups in the name of improving the common good. This is the essence of civic engagement, and best focus of future history instruction.
The lessons themselves are very well-written, with excellent primary sources for the students to use. Not only are they lessons that can be used as-is, but they are a good starting point for PLCs that can extract activities and sources that are relevant to the curriculum they have been charged with. There is much here that I plan using as an enhancement to the lessons I already teach. This book is an excellent resource, and I highly recommend it for history teachers with an eye towards the future.