The topic of history and education is a hot one in my class right now. After last week’s readings, many of my classmate’s blogs were dedicated to exploring some of the questions that remained unanswered (to read some of these great posts and conversations, click on just about any link in my blogroll to the right).
The main question our professor challenged us to answer was “why teach history?” Of course, this is a difficult question to answer (it wouldn’t be grad school if we were given easy questions)!
It is difficult to provide an articulate and tangible response to this question. I remember when I was choosing my high-school classes, I felt pressured to take math and science classes, because they were the most “useful” and “important prerequisites for university.” There was so much emphasis on taking these courses, that I ended up dropping French in grade 11 and taking two Science courses instead (a decision I very much regret now).
Even though I knew that I likely wouldn’t be pursuing a science or math degree, I was convinced that I needed the courses because the teachers had a much better answer for the “why teach (or take) this course” question. I needed science if I wanted to be A doctor; I needed math if I wanted to be AN engineer. These courses had much more tangible applications than history.
With a history degree, it is much more difficult to be A something. Even after this degree, I will never be A something, and my profession will always be defined by my current job title (assuming I get one!). Although it can be scary not knowing exactly what kind of career I will have (and makes for painful conversations when I’m trying to explain my degree to people), it is also exciting and I like that I won’t necessarily be limited to one type of job.
Unfortunately, the structure of our education system (starting in high-school and continuing throughout university) is designed to make you into A something. Starting when you are about 14 (depending on what province/country you are in), you essentially start a 10 year education plan, as you select your courses, making sure they will eventually form the correct path of prerequisites. To make sure we all stay on track and up to snuff, we are given standardized tests. This environment is problematic enough for those who know they want to attend university. Those who don’t plan on going to university spend most of their time in high-school trying to fit into this mould and then feeling bad about themselves (and acting out) when they can’t find their place.
Ideally, it would be nice if our education had less structure. By university, there is very little room for courses outside your department (unless you count that mandatory math class that you have to take, to which I say, stop it with the math already – after this class I will be using this new device called a calculator and I will never need to know how to derive the quadratic equation). As much as I love history, there are so many other subjects I would like to study, which I simply can’t do during my degree. Perhaps the web will address this issue. I know there are many resources on the web for education – you can access course outlines, lectures from renowned universities and read textbooks online. All of this makes education more affordable and more accessible. However, it takes a fair amount of discipline to rid yourself of traditional systems of education (teachers, classrooms, assignments) and learn how to learn by yourself. I don’t think the web will entirely replace traditional education, but it would be nice if we could use it to address some of the problems in our current educational systems.
I started this blog intending to explore the “why teach history?” question, but it seems that, in doing so, I was sidetracked by trying to understand how we got to a place and time where we are having to answer this question and essentially justify the teaching of history. I will continue to contemplate the “why teach history” question and report back if I find any answers.