Friday, October 18, 2013

Loving History, Loving the Lecture

I fell into being an undergraduate history major without trying. I didn't plan what courses to take; instead, I took what interested me. By the end of my sophomore year I had most of what you needed for the major.

At the same time, I don't think I ever appreciated the craft of being a historian. I avoided the required historiography class in favor of a graduate-level seminar on a specific topic, a substitution the department allowed for some reason. I just loved to hear and read about lots of details of particular places, people, and social conditions. At that tender age, I didn't have much interest in discovering history myself through the usual methods of using primary documents, visiting sites, or interviewing people.

What a great example of how education can sometimes be wasted on the young. Now I wish I had that to do over again, and I realized it again today when I listened to a talk by historian Annette Atkins of St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict.

Atkins was asked to talk to the people of Stillwater, Minn., about learning the history of your own town. Her advice is engagingly down-to-earth and reveals the essential curiosity that guides a historian (or geographer). Where are the factories located in town, she asked, and what did they make? Where are the fancy houses, where are the working-class houses, what do the houses look like, and what do the house layouts tell you about who lived (or worked) there? Where are the churches, what religions and denominations are they, and which ones were built first? What does that tell you about the ethnic and geographic roots of the inhabitants?

Her talk brought back everything I loved about my best history professors (and professors in other topics): their clear love of their subject, their endless curiosity and questioning of the world around them.

I value the approach of the autodidact as well as the teacher who uses hands-on materials and group discussion, but I love a good lecture too much to say that education needs to change completely to be entirely self-directed or interactive. It's not either/or, but both/and. A person who has learned a lot has a lot to share, and telling is a valuable thing.


BLissed-Out Grandma said...

So true. Telling is sometimes what really crystallizes our knowledge, I think.

Michael Leddy said...

This is going to my son the social studies teacher. Thanks.

Michael Leddy said...

This is going to my son the social studies teacher. Thanks.