Context, Context, Context
Some years ago I had lunch with a neighbor who is a fellow historian. We had a wonderful time, but as I went home, I felt sad. I realized that we were speaking a specialized language of references and cross-references that we loved speaking, but which most people could not follow. To us, lunch had been like one of those great nights at a jazz club when two sax or horn players riff off of each other, competing, harmonizing, challenging, creating sweet music together. But for those not trained in history, our conversation could have been held in Latin, it was just so foreign. History, I realized, is no longer a common language. I wrote an essay about that "History Is Latin" and posted it to my Amazon Profile. (I don’t dare put the url here, since I’ve had such bad luck with that breaking up my blogs recently).
Just the other day, an elementary school teacher posted to the site. She had read the essay, and was making a plea for help. Her school requires her to teach various social studies topics, but she has no training in history, so she has no sense of context. My lunchtime conversation was nothing but context — because we are aswim in history, any new name, date, period, or idea fits into that flow. This teacher has precisely the opposite experience — the discrete unit she is expected to teach links up to nothing — it has no before, no after, no significance, no resonance, no meaning, and thus no purpose. As Myra Zarnowski says: you and your students memorize and forget (since there is no reason to learn beyond the test you have to pass).
So how can we help that teacher — who is hardly alone. What gives the context for any Social Studies subject, from ancient China, to Alexander the Great, to Sam the Minuteman and the American Revolution? I have seen Myra in action, and she has many specific classroom techniques. For example, having teacher and student write letters to people in a different historical period, comparing your life to his or her life. I wonder if some of the endless emphasis on "story" in non-fiction might come from teachers who find that reassuring and familiar — "oh this is a story, it does not matter that it is set in 1200, it has characters I care about, and I can learn."
I don’t have a magical answer, in fact I need to think and read and learn more about this problem. But I can say that, for me, there is one crucial step. Every historical fact, date, name, period, theme is a question, a launching pad for curiosity. Nothing in history is dead, settled, over. Every fact is a beginning — if this is so, why? Why did this happen and not that? When you investigate the past, you are touching treasure, the bits and pieces that have survived; you hold truth, wisdom, knowledge in your hands, if you can but penetrate its secrets. Every fragment of the past is like the Dead Sea Scrolls — you feel that some great truth is there, if we can only piece it together. Maybe we can, or maybe we just learn in the process of trying.
So, how do we help our elementary school teachers with their crisis of context?