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The most important historical knowledge (T15)

We asked some smart people this question:
What is the most important specific knowledge or wisdom that a student should gain from a study of history?
Here's what they said:


Bob Bain, high school teacher for 26 years, professor of history education at the University of Michigan

Students are no different than the rest of us in that we often bring "careless eyes" to the situations in which we have to act....So, I think the disciplined study of the past should help students self-consciously sharpen and "improve" the accounts of the past they accept, and increase their intellectual capacity to "see" more clearly the situation in which one has to act.


Jacques Barzun, historian, former provost of Columbia University, past president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, author of books including Begin Here and From Dawn to Decadence

I wish I could answer your question in the terms you desire. But history has diverse benefits of equal worth, and these take effect on the mind differently with each person. It would take an essay to set out the facts accurately. Failing that, the danger is that teachers will teach to the simple purpose and result, which is regrettable.


Dan Deneen, Vermont teacher, free thinker and creative spirit

The most important general understanding offered by history is this: freedom may never be taken for granted. But your question includes the term "specific"...I would choose this: the conflict in Vietnam. As a focal point, America's 20th century comes together there; to know anything at all about Vietnam is to know a great deal about the colonial background, the distinctions between eastern and western traditions, political ideologies, the relationships between nation-states, cultural change, the price of war, and the nature of power.


Chris Husbands, former teacher, professor in educational studies at the University of Warwick, England and author of What is History Teaching?

Very simple - an understanding of the importance of what Jan Vansina calls "the power of systematic doubt"


Henry A. Kissinger, 1973 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, U.S. Secretary of State 1973-77, chairman of Kissinger & Associates international consulting firm, and author of books including Diplomacy.

Thank you for the opportunity to answer your formidable question...History is not a cookbook which gives recipes; it teaches by analogy and forces us to decide what, if anything, is analogous. History gives us a feel for the significance of events, but it does not teach which individual events are significant. It is impossible to write down a conceptual scheme and apply it mechanically to evolving situations. Certain principles can be developed and certain understandings can be elaborated through a study of history, but it is impossible to predict in advance how they apply to concrete situations.


Alfie Kohn, former teacher, progressive education activist, critic of high stakes testing and author of books including Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve

What is the most important specific knowledge or wisdom that a student should gain from a study of history?
The realization that things could have happened differently.


J.R. McNeill, history professor at Georgetown University, author of Something New Under the Sun, co-author of The Human Web: a Birds-eye View of History

The single most important thing is what Thucydides offered as the justification for his history, an aid to general wisdom, but that's not specific. I'd say the most important specific thing is the wide applicability of the law of unintended consequences in human affairs.


Diane Ravitch, historian of education, professor at New York University, policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, former Assistant Secretary of Education, and author of books including Left Back and The Great School Wars

One should learn from the study of history about the major events, ideas, and individuals that have shaped the modern world. This knowledge is needed to be an intelligent, thinking, effective person in today's world. It is also needed to enable one to make decisions as a member of a democratic society. This background knowledge I would call a foundation for democratic participation.

In addition, I would hope that intelligent individuals would find it engaging to learn about civilizations that have not contributed directly to shaping current nations and problems, just for the sheer joy of learning about the rise and fall of civilizations and about the ways that humans have organized themselves and acted in the world.


Heidi Roupp, teacher emeritus at Aspen High School, former president of the World History Association and editor of Teaching World History: a Resource Book

That's easy. My hope is that students gain a working knowledge of the world and its peoples.


Peter Seixas, Professor of curriculum studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada and Director of the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness

The study of history should make young people aware of how profoundly different life was in the past, and thus, serve notice that in all of our best (and necessary) efforts to understand it in hindsight, we perpetually risk misunderstanding.


Peter Stearns, Provost of George Mason University and author of books on world history including The Encyclopedia of World History and World Civilizations

There are of course several fundamentals but to me what stands out is the capacity to understand how change occurs -- how to assess magnitude, causes and accompanying continuities.


Elie Wiesel, Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author of books including Night and A Beggar in Jerusalem

Thanks for...giving me the chance to address your important question, What is the most important specific knowledge or wisdom that a student should gain from the study of history? My answer: To remember is to share.


Sam Wineburg, researcher in the field of history education, professor at Stanford University and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

History educates ("leads outward" in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum it does the best in teaching those virtues once reserved for theology - the virtue of humility, in the face of our limits to know; and the virtue of awe, in the face of the expanse of human history.


James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, Chairman of the Board of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, and Chairman Emeritus of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

History is what teaches us about our lives. It reminds us of what we are made
of and what we might become, if we are willing to learn from it.


Jan Zuehlke, Texas teacher and social studies coordinator for over thirty years, currently an educational consultant and "teacher of teachers"

I would like to see students understand the concepts of history so they can take it with them for a lifetime, not just to get an "A" on the test. I believe these concepts begin in Kindergarten and can be developed throughout a child's education. These are concepts like freedom, democracy, and citizenship. The classroom is really a microcosm of the world and contains many opportunities for teaching the concepts of history without a textbook or worksheets. What we have to remember is that students can learn facts all day long and never understand the concept, but to understand the concept, they have to know some facts.


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