I share B. C. Knowlton’s concerns about teaching college students to really read and understand works of history. He first taught a group of students who needed remedial help in reading and writing. For them, the popular The Guns of August was too difficult. With some help they were able to get through the material but in the end he could not get them to a level of critically thinking about the subject and its significance. The other group of good students were able to read and write well, but they also seemed unmotivated to engage with works of history (or any other readings of substance) on any sustained level beyond their required courses.
His experience with these students led him to wonder whether or not “those who take required History courses as college freshmen become and remain literate and critical students of History? Once there are no more papers to write, will they see any reason to read? How, as they head into the future, will they engage with the past? When historic anniversaries approach, will they pay historical attention to them, or just watch the documentaries?”
Given the lack of interest in anything not related to their majors or future careers (at least in my experience), I’m guessing that they will “just watch the documentaries” (if even that!). But I always hope that as they mature they will change their minds.
Source: History News Network | The Surprising Reaction I Got When I Assigned Barbara Tuchman’s Popular History of World War 1 to College Students
At the History News Network, Robert Zaretsky argues that the popular perception of history as “a how-to manual for avoiding past errors” is mistaken. In practice applying the “lessons of history” has rarely been successful. False analogies, faulty interpretations, and inadequate understanding of the past and present all contribute to the problem. Zaretsky points out, correctly I believe, that we turn “to the past for platitudes that parade as lessons.”
Despite his pessimism concerning history lessons Zaretsky still believes that history can be a useful guide in the present. Instead of turning to history as “a how-to manual,” Zaretsky believes that it is the stories offered by history that are valuable. Stories of the past, he insists, “offer, in effect, exercises in political and moral judgment.” As an example he turns to the lessons learned from Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August by John F. Kennedy. According to Zaretsky, it taught Kennedy “that the greatest danger a political leader could run in time of crisis was ‘a mistake in judgment.’”
History News Network | What Can We Learn from History?.