“As long as you teach history the correct way.”

Upon hearing that I am a college professor and frequently teach History, people sometimes respond with conditional and reserved words of enthusiasm. In some way or another, these people inquire as to whether or not I teach History correctly.

What does that even mean?

I usually respond that I teach according to evidence. And this does not satisfy their suspicions.

Here’s what I’m guessing most of them mean: “Do you teach this new crazy junk that includes minorities and recognizes all the awful things the U.S. has done or do you teach that the United States is the best country ever and that the South will rise again?”

People are very resistant to encountering information, however directly or indirectly, that does not confirm their childhood (and adult) notions of the past that are taught in movies, in cartoons, and in public schools.

People get really anxious at times when you explain how an event has all kinds of interpretations and has a historiography! 

By even asking, “Do you teach history correctly,” people demonstrate they do not know what it means to actually study the past or have advanced degrees in the subject. And as a reminder, I am not a history buff! 🙂 

Here’s to teaching about the past in a way that challenges people!

Andrew Joseph Pegoda 


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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1 reply

  1. The older I get the more I notice which facts about an event tend to be repeated more often in the media than others. For many people, the only information they get about a situtation is from the immediate coverage by media.They are not interested in the thoughtful analysis of the event over time. You are telling us in this post that the study of history is one of disciplined analysis of events to make sure that quick reporting is at least accurate. Disciplined analysis is based upon many tried and true methods that have been combined over the centuries into a coherent process. That pretty much defines all academic disciplines to some degree.

    Often that analysis forces us to re-think the conclusions we reached in the past. But if you ignore the chances to re-think the past, anyone forcing you to do so now would cause considerable “cognitive dissonance.” This is an extremely uncomfortable feeling when what your brain has turned into a belief is being confronted by anyone, whether or not you had trusted that person before. What I have discovered about people is the willingness to turn any subject into a belief before it has ever been objectively analyzed. Very prominent in this list of subjects is history.

    However, science is another one. When sloppy analysis is done on a scientific study, where conclusions about cause and effect are assigned to a process before it has ever been scientifically tested, then science becomes a belief and not a method of inquiry. When recommendations are made on the basis of only correlations (observational studies), they are often very one-sided. The recommender is concluding that factor A is causing factor B, but not that factor B is causing factor A, or that factor C (unknown and undiscussed) may be causing both A and B. All three conclusions will result in the same statistical correlation, so all three should be reported but are not.

    A similar kind of analysis is done on historical events and long periods of time are necessary for understanding the effects on people by these events. You cannot draw most conclusions until the time dimension is considered. Time also gives you access to another dimension as well. Since your brain is already focused on one event, other events, as they happen tend to be examined more closely for their similarities to the event on your mind. This is the process of developing perspective, which automatically leads to wisdom. When history becomes a belief, that perspective is lost, and so is, obviously, the wisdom. So, given the desires of quick reporting by the news media, this process is not acceptable, and increases the probability that history becomes a belief and not a process of analysis.

    When science becomes a belief, it leads to the present problem that many people have with scientists–that they keep changing their recommendations. Who can keep up with these changes? You don’t have to if you realize where the recommendations are coming from. Most recommendations use “evidence” from 1) purely observational studies (step one in the scientific method), 2) from purely random controlled experiments, or 3) from a mix of both (via meta-analyses, which often suffer from another serious methodological flaw–the subjectivity of deciding which studies to include).

    There are similar questions about historical events that also need to be leveled at the reporters. Some media sources mention all the facts and others do not. Many facts do not become relevant until much later, falling outside of the news cycle, and clearly would affect all conclusions if known. Becaused the news media is more concerned with the here and now, history is very easily turned into a belief, long before we understand what really happened.

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