HM - Dec. 2015 - Fea

The History Corner


Why History Teachers Should Continue to Study History

By John Fea, Ph.D
Messiah College
Mechaniscsburg, PA

Author of
"Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past"

I was fortunate to get a good history education in school.  Most of my teachers were passionate about teaching history, knowledgeable about the past, and committed to life-long learning.  But I do remember a few teachers who just didn’t seem to care.  Some of them read from the textbook or lectured from yellowed pages of notes that had not changed since they first wrote them in the 1960s. Success in history classes presided over by these teachers required the memorization of facts in the same way that success in math and sciences classes required the memorization of axioms and formulas.  Whatever civic value the study of the past might have for our lives was largely ignored.

I am convinced that these teachers were so bad because they were not devoted to the continued study of the past. To them history was a fixed body of truth that they learned in college, and teaching was simply the act of conveying that truth to students year after year.  State-mandated continuing education was a necessary hoop to jump through in order to keep the paychecks coming.

Today, as a college history professor, I spend a lot of time teaching future teachers.  I want my students to be both effective classroom teachers and first-rate historians.  I thus usually spend the last several sessions of my “Teaching History” course at Messiah College challenging students to develop professional habits designed to foster the love and passion for history that led them to choose this subject as a college major. There are a lot of reasons why history teachers should keep studying history, but I will focus here on three.

First, we should study history because it is always changing. All historians—even history teachers—are revisionists.  In today’s culture the word “revisionism” carries a negative connotation because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of political agenda in the present.  But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment.  Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history.  The historian R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian; not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves.”  As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change.  This makes history an exciting and intellectually engaging discipline for both teachers and their students.  While K-12 teachers should not be expected to keep up with the field to the degree of a college professor, the regular study of history prevents us from rehearsing old and stale interpretations year after year.

Second, we should study history because it cultivates empathy and humility.  The best history teachers want their students to learn more than the facts and the interpretation of those facts.  They want to resurrect the past so that their students learn how to empathize with people who are different or who reside in the “foreign country” of the past.  Empathy requires the student of history to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours.  This is the hardest part of studying and teaching history because our natural inclination, or, as Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg calls it, our “psychological condition at rest,” is to find something useful or relevant in the past.  We want to make the past work for us rather than enter into it with an attitude of wonder about what we might find and the kinds of people and ideas we might encounter.  By studying the past, teachers nurture empathy in their own lives and are in a better position to understand the needs and demands of their students.

The practice of empathy will inevitably lead to humility.  The study of history decenters us.  It makes us realize our own smallness in the vast course of human history.  The study of history also makes us humble because of the limited nature of the discipline.  Since historians are so often removed from the past they study and teach, they must come to grips with their own finiteness, realizing that they can never fully understand it in all its fullness and complexity.  Sometimes we just don’t know.  The more we immerse ourselves in the study of the past the more we relieve ourselves of the narcissistic mentality that defines modern life.

Third, we should study history because there are wonderful opportunities available to do so.  The Teaching American History grants may be gone, but there are still a lot of great opportunities out there for history teachers to strengthen their pedagogy and content knowledge.  Accessible history books remain on the best-seller lists.  More and more newspapers and websites are encouraging historians to submit op-eds and articles that place local, national, and global events in context.  The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History continues to offer week-long summer seminars and has recently added on-line graduate courses with some of the top scholars in the country.   The National Endowment for the Humanities, Mount Vernon, and the Library of Congress, among others, all offer summer teacher institutes. 

Despite the funding priorities of our STEM-crazed politicians, it is still a great time to be a historian in the K-12 classroom.  The discipline is ever-changing in exciting ways, the study of the past is a wonderful way to cultivate the virtues—empathy and humility—essential for our democracy to thrive, and opportunities for professional growth seem to be endless. 

John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA and is the author of "Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past."