Teaching world history: from StudentsFriend.com

Barzun was an eminent American historian and professor who has thought long and hard about teaching, as well as history, during his long career in education. Writing about education reform more than four decades ago, Barzun deplored "nonsense" in education which he described as:

"...proposing or promoting something other than the prime object of the school, which is the removal of ignorance. Or again, it consists in undertaking to do what cannot be done within the conditions of time and talent set by the common realities of life."*

Notice that Barzun did not say that education is the prime object of schooling; he considers education to be the result of a life-long process of learning—a process that may depend more on the inclinations of the individual than the programs of the school. Barzun had a narrower goal in mind for the schools, the removal of ignorance insofar as practically possible.

Barzun suggested that we send young people into adult life with a useful awareness of the world they will inhabit. Learning, then, should be meaningful, not merely an attempt to stuff information into young minds.

In his book Meaning Over Memory, noted history educator and author Peter N. Stearns put it this way, "The purpose of education is to provide understanding." He suggests we adopt"...curricula that would promote understanding rather than overwhelming critical thought with memorization..."**

Three principles of education

Thus, with the help of Professors Barzun and Stearns, we can identify three basic principles of schooling. It should:

-prepare students for the future

-focus on meaningful understanding

-be realistic in its expectations

These guidelines provide a useful test against which any educational content or method may be measured.

The role of history

Let us narrow our focus to the special role played by history within the educational scheme. Over the course of the 20th Century, schools developed a structure that addressed four broad and fundamental realms of academic knowledge:

-Mathematics that describes the quantitative world

-Language that describes the communicative world

-Science that describes the physical world

-History that describes the human world

The first two realms, mathematics and language, serve primarily as skills for uncovering and communicating knowledge, while the second two realms serve primarily to provide content knowledge of the external world.

Of course, each discipline involves elements of both content and skills, but when a student has completed a history or science course, we generally expect the student to have a broader understanding of the external world; whereas, when a student has completed a language or math course, we expect the student to have acquired helpful skills that can be applied to many areas of human endeavor.

Other fields of learning may be seen as hybrids derived from these four fundamental disciplines. Geography and sociology, for instance, combine elements of history, science, and mathematics.

Within this framework, what are the objectives of history education?

History can

-help us understand how the world works and how humans behave.

-Inform judgment, thereby serving as a guide to action.

-provides a common basis for participating the ongoing dialogue of our culture.

Students familiar with history know their unique place in the stream of time; they have a sense of the trajectory of human development—where it may veer off course and how it might be kept on track.  A democracy needs citizens with such wisdom and judgment, and there is no better place to find it than in the long record of human experience.

In a society that has developed the capacity to destroy most life on earth, humans need all the good judgment they can muster.


*Barzun, Jacques, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, The University of Chicago Press, 1991

**Stearns, Peter N., Meaning Over Memory, The University of North Carolina Press, 1993

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On the goal of education

Few would dispute the proposition that the primary purpose of schooling is to prepare students to function effectively in the world, and thereby to assist society to function effectively as well. This purpose is accomplished through focused learning, or, as Jacques Barzun put it, "the removal of ignorance."