I haven’t had the time to do any work on Mabbott this week, so I don’t have much on him to report. I’ve been doing grading for a class I am TAing on the History of Latin America. The material is interesting, but of course some students can engage with it and others cannot. To me, these lower-division courses repeatedly reveal significant weaknesses in our primary education and the fact that they are not remedied in any systematic way in higher education. Our students are not, and even less now thanks to No Child Left Behind, taught how to think critically about historical sources. They read primary sources like textbooks, and become confused when the two do not match. How can we expect them to be responsible citizens when they cannot decipher what they are reading? I do not speak of the students I have this quarter in particular; in fact, the papers I am reading right now are of somewhat higher quality than usual.
I am frustrated that I cannot focus on teaching them how to read critically. I took a section to do a close reading exercise a week or two ago, and they were generally quite pleased with it. However, I cannot do so very often, and certainly not frequently enough to retrain their thinking.
Even harder is trying to teach them how to integrate that kind of thinking into their writing. They cannot explain themselves in an understandable fashion without following the textbook as a guide. Frequently, I am frustrated at the kinds of errors that people learn in lower education. The fact that many still do not understand where to use an apostrophe appropriately is indicative, as well as the persistence of the “five-paragraph essay,” even when the paper is six to seven pages long.
Some of my frustrations could possibly be solved by a course on historical methodology. How many students think that history is memorizing a textbook? That is at the heart of the problem. History is a discipline, and should be taught as such. Can you imagine a chemistry class which skipped the scientific method and ignored the laboratory? The course could make a habit of reading exercises and analysis, integrated with writing exercises. A really adventurous instructor could give oral history a try.
Perhaps these are the ordinary gripes of an instructor. Certainly, I’ve heard them from others before. But I still have to believe that we are here to teach our students how to think, and that we are failing. If we cannot teach them how to analyze the constant barrage of information that is thrown at them from advertisements, politicians, their friends, and even us, how can we expect them to be thoughtful, intelligent members of society? Perhaps it is the recent political campaigns that have made so pensive; it is frightening to hear the things that people say and are so ready to believe. To me, being a citizen is the one area in which the study of history, any kind of history, is so important. It teaches the skills that people need to be citizens, and to make reasonable choices. In the end, isn’t that the most important thing?
Anyway, I’m starting to feel like a Ranter now, so I’ll stop. I am tempted to reread The Historian’s Craft.