“History is Dead! Long Live History!”

Not long ago, I watched this TED Talk by Conrad Wolfram, creator of WolframAlpha, on the teaching of mathematics.  In this video, Conrad discusses the use of computers in teaching math and how they can be utilized to shift the emphasis from computation to problem solving in the real world.

Shortly after that, I came across Mike Gwaltney’s blog post on Democratizing Knowledge titled “Math is Dead. Long Live Mathematics!” Don’t be shy, you should go there and read it.  But first, think about this…

Math History is Dead. Love Live Mathematics History!

Whenever you hear or see the word “computation” in the TED Talk or in Mike’s post, replace it in your mind with “fact memorization.” Whenever you see or hear “math” or “mathematics,” replace it with “history.” While every substitute doesn’t work perfectly, I think it is worth discussing the parallels.  In history, computers would not be used for computation, but rather to look up historical facts.

Please note that I’m not saying we should throw the memorization of historical facts completely out the window.  I believe there should be a balance between knowing certain facts and being able to do analysis.  After all, things like the Gettysburg Address and the Diary of Anne Frank (or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) make less sense if you don’t understand the facts and the context surrounding them.  Rather, I would like to have a conversation on the idea of how much we should shift the approach to teaching history if, through technology, students have much easier access to the facts than in the past.

So what do you think?  Do you feel it is fair to substitute fact memorization for computation?  Do you feel there is a better substitute in the field of history?  Perhaps this idea parallels another substitution in a different discipline.  What are your thoughts?


6 thoughts on ““History is Dead! Long Live History!””

  1. Liz,

    I get into fights about this all the time with colleagues. I don’t think the need to know “stuff” has necessarily subsided, rather, I think the depth of that knowledge has been alleviated due to the availability of technology. To make complex connections, we still need to make sure that students come away with a basic understanding so that they can relate and synthesize a range of ideas to develop a new solution to a problem.

    For instance, students don’t need to know every intricacy of every political party throughout American history, but being able to generate an understanding of the rationale for why political parties exist is important as is knowing what research cues to utilize to provide rationale for thinking a certain way.

    In other words, I don’t care what my kids think of the TEA party one way or another, but I do care that they can utilize a variety of methods to rationalize why their arguments are (or are not) novel in United States history.

    I think it is more of a lawyer-like idea in today’s technology rich world.

    What you believe matters less than what you can prove, and what you can prove hinges on your ability to quickly search and develop complex connections utilizing sources that were unavailable to prior generations.


  2. High school English departments have also been having discussions about what matters most: literary canon or reading.

    The dilemma comes down to determining what is essential learning. The literary canon is a really weakened tenet in many, maybe even most, English departments. Collectively, we have determined that reading Huck Finn or The Scarlet Letter will not ensure a well-educated high school graduate. And guess what? The educational system is still functioning!

    Back to the point of history–it is an incredibly interesting and complex discipline of study if the teacher gets out of the way and gives students time and encouragement to create meaning from facts.

    Somehow I don’t think the education system will crumble if high school sophomores don’t learn the names of all the English kings and queens since the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. Nor will I ever get any financial benefit from knowing that fact. What I, like most students of history, will gain from knowing the story of William Conqueror is a deeper appreciation for the English language as well as some insight into the long, troubled history of French-English relations. The Hundred Years War makes more sense, Joan of Arc is contextualized, and other Western European historical events seem less random. But I didn’t learn any of that in high school or college.

    The question comes back around to something like, “Why not expect and encourage students to dig into the well of their passion to piece together the fragments of history into a tower of knowledge?”

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  3. Liz,

    You’ve made a strong case for reinventing the history class in your post. Sign me up. I do think you are correct in letting technology assist students in putting the puzzle of historical events together, rather than sticking to the tried and true where the teacher (or book) informs us of knowledge that is readily available online. I can see students in charge of building their own timeline of events for an era and then answering the bigger questions from that time period. I can see the history teacher’s role evolving into that were we train in analysis and evaluation. We should be about making kids think in history instead of teaching what is most easily tested in multiple choice format. Thanks for posting!

  4. First Liz, thanks for the shout-out. It’s an honor, and I’m humbled by you. 🙂

    I responded to your post, on my Democratizing Knowledge blog (http://mikegwaltney.net/blog/?p=255) and included another excellent TED Talk.

    Here’s what I think:

    Like computers can do the computing for mathematical problems, the internet is a better source for historical facts than textbooks or teachers. Primary sources abound on the net, and a well-trained history teacher can help students acquire the skills necessary to determine which sources are accurate and relevant, and how to make their own historical narratives out of the abundant facts.

    Yes, remembering names of historical figures and key events is important, but not as essential as learning to think like a historian. Students should engage with the truly essential facts of history frequently in the process of making their own historical narratives. I can envision students dealing with tricky historical inquiries about the origins of the Tea Party movement, and coming to grips with facts about southern and rural libertarianism, for example. Certainly, students in a well-designed 21st century history course would retain important facts of history.

    Yet I assert that much more valuable than facts is the ability to do historical inquiry – namely, formulate questions in response to problematic facts, research, then analyze and evaluate conclusions in light of the facts, and create one’s own historical interpretation. Or, to tweak the process slightly, to evaluate historical claims using information literacy skills.

    Let’s be clear – it is inconceivable that students won’t have access to lecture information in the future: Wikipedia has every fact that I’ll cover in my AP U.S. History course this year, and if students want to hear an expert lecture they can always find one on iTunes University from Berkeley or MIT. So instead of coverage-style lecturing we need to use the very valuable classroom time to engage in deep inquiry about historical and current problems. Teachers should create powerful essential questions that require students to master information literacy skills they’ll need in a digital age, and to master historical inquiry. From these questions, students will behave as historians, researching, analyzing, evaluating, and creating DAILY. Isn’t that more valuable critical thinking than the odd essay question every few weeks between lectures?

  5. @Aaron – Those are good points to consider. I agree that it is important for students to have the skills to backup their claims with reliable evidence.

    @Judy – Thank you for the English perspective. I’ve found myself listening to many a discussion on venerating and knowing the cannon vs. choosing things that interest students in reading. I think this is every bit as important as the History and Math debates.

    @Becky – I’ve been thinking a lot about the teacher’s role in training students in evaluation and analysis. You posts made me think about how important it is for us to help students wade through the information overload technology provides us. I think it’s important for us to help students see what is valuable and reliable information and to help them see what is not.

    @Mike – Thanks for another great contribution to this discussion. I especially agree with your last paragraph about teaching students to think like historians. I think the value of this is often underestimated. Historical thinking skills go way beyond analysis of our old “stories” to so much of what is happening today, especially in the political and economic/marketing arenas. I remember my first historiography class in which we were told we would be taught to “question everything we read.” That’s what I want my students to do.

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