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Is the Historian's Craft Still Worth Teaching?

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Technology has fundamentally changed how stories are told and information is conveyed. Today, the most engaging content includes not just writing, but also video, audio, and photos—and it’s just a matter of time before new media add to the mix.

Those developments have made me rethink a rigid emphasis on teaching formal, academic history writing, the kind that embraces dispassionate, object analysis aimed at a more plausible account of cause and effect. Since earning my master’s degree in history from Brandeis University, a top liberal arts school in Waltham, Massachusetts, I haven’t composed a single piece of history writing.

Moreover, I question whether history teachers (myself included) do enough to provide students with relevant skills, easily and obviously transferable to the real world. I don’t have one history publication to my name, but I have published several articles in The Atlantic and Edutopia—and Spin Education has garnered me some recognition.

All of this isn’t to say teaching the historian’s craft can’t help students develop real-world skills. I’m forever grateful for studying under Prof. Antony Polonsky, widely regarded as one the world’s top Polish historians, if not the preeminent authority. Through him, I learned to strive toward reason and clarity, not just with history, but also with anything I pursue. All the same, as much as I admire Polonsky and all that he did for me, I’m unconvinced that teaching the historian’s craft is the best and only way to teach reason and clarity—especially with Web 3.0.

As an alternative, I teach and encourage students to blog and share their work online. In that respect, I find it odd (and hypocritical) that for as much as teachers say they support that initiative, more don’t share posts themselves. Full-time teachers like Vicki Davis, author of Reinventing Writing: The 9 Tools That Are Changing Writing, Teaching and Learning Forever, support my case. “When I saw the value of blogging for my students was when I blogged myself,” Davis told me, when we spoke in August. “In 2000, it was a lot harder. Now [that] we have truly entered the age of the influencer ... I’ve seen that more educators realize it’s important. I don’t think all educators understand the academic value of all these tools. I think that they just think, ‘Oh, it’s social,’ or, ‘That’s what they do on their off time.’ They don’t know that blogging ... is a truly new form of writing that we need to teach.”

Several months ago, I reconnected with Polonsky, curious to hear how he writes so well, and so passionately, all while embracing the historian’s craft. “When one’s writing, you always have an audience,” he tells me. “When I’m writing, I have a double audience. I have a Polish audience because I’m very much involved in Polish affairs. There I’m trying to show what went wrong in Poland. I don’t believe you should pull punches. You have to say how things were but in an honest and open way. I also have a Jewish audience, which has deeply-rooted prejudices against Poles. I’m also trying to explain to the Jewish audience why things were the way they were. It’s a challenge to combine those two.”

It’s worth noting, though, that Polonsky writes in a fashion that his audience—composed mostly of academics and those familiar with Polish history—deem appropriate. I can attest to the fact that Polonsky’s work doesn’t “pull punches,” but it’s also true that he has devoted much of his life to honing the historian’s craft.

Few of my students will become history professors, and it’s almost certain that even fewer (if any) will ever reach Polonsky’s level of authority. With that in mind, I wonder if I should deemphasize teaching the historian’s craft, and place more emphasis on helping students use multi-media tools of expression—not only to convey their understanding of history, but also to help them find their passions, and appropriately connect with their audiences. After all, in the long run, most of my students will find the latter more useful and relevant to life after school.

For deeper insight, I recently spoke with Mark Barnes, an award-winning teacher and author of several recent books on self-directed learning. I don’t sidestep the issue, asking if teachers place too much emphasis on academic writing.

“I think it’s a tough question to answer,” says Barnes. “My first inclination would be to say that we do too much of it. Is there a place for it? I think, yes... A lot of the times, teachers will say, ‘We have to prepare kids for the next level.’ In a way, that is a responsibility that we have. I think what we want to do is try and find the perfect balance, and it’s a really tricky thing to do.”

It’s that elusive “balance” that I struggle with maintaining. I constantly strive to do well by my students, but I realize that my views on history education, however well-meaning, don’t always jibe with an antiquated, factory-model education system. I want students to succeed in school after having me as a teacher. Still, I believe that by and large, school does a poor job of teaching real-world skills—and an even worse job of making plain how whatever real-world skills are indeed taught, are helpful and transferable after the learners leave the classroom.

History teachers, like all teachers, need to be constantly reassessing the long-term value of what and how they teach. I know I am.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Wednesday, 26 October 2016