Wednesday, April 30, 2008

An Historian Trapped in the Body of a Political Scientist

Today I gave my last lecture of the semester. Now I just have to grade papers. This semester I taught my first history course. Despite being an historian by training I found this course a bit frustrating. I had a difficult time getting students to talk in the class. It almost seemed to me that they lacked passion over the events because they took place several generations ago. I would be curious if any other history professors have encountered this problem and what can be done to remedy it.

1 comment:

FLG said...

I'm not a professor, but my experience as a student offer some insight. History in an academic setting focuses too much on social, economic, and cultural forces. It almost implies that the particular individuals involved are not important, as they are merely products of their enviroment. Since the cultural, economic, and social milieux you are teaching no longer exist, it implies that they are not relevant to current students. So why be concerned about them?

I like it when history courses, while acknowledging the importance of the above forces, also focus on the individuals and universal lessons of the historical events.

What lessons does Alexander's policy of fusion, if it indeed existed, offer for the globalized world? What character flaws led him to misjudge events?

How did Hitler, as an individual, take advantage of the economic situation caused by the reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles?

I realize historians dislike the idea that history has lessons beyond the purely academic study of a subject, but this is cop-out and incorrect. First, while academics might love knowledge of history for the sake of knowledge, this demands a love of historical knowledge. A professor cannot assume that their interest in history as an academic discipline purely for the sake of knowledge without practical applications is going to appeal to all their students. Second, if we assume, as I do, that human nature is relatively constant, then historical events, now matter how ancient, provide case studies in how human beings will act toward similar events today.

The cop-out part is because historians, in my view, do not want to be responsible for the applications of the knowledge that they discover or pass on. This is impossible, and it leads to what you are experiencing -- lack of involvement in the material.

Mostly because they presume human nature is not constant and social forces shape events. Therefore, the knowledge has no real practical usefulness to the modern world. Not that everything has to be practical, but some how you have to get students to consider their milieu using the knowledge of history. Considering a historical event in an intellectual vaccuum, so to speak, is doomed to failure.

Sorry for the rant, but I love history and hate many history classes. Hope this was helpful in some way.