“Ugh, I was terrible at history”

We all have cIasses from high school and college that we remember with fondness, and others we remember with terror. Probably even more common is a subject that we associate with boring assignments on long forgotten material. When we encounter someone who has dedicated their life to an academic subject, it’s hard not to immediately think of our own tiny experience with that subject. When I meet a chemist, I flash back to panicking over lab results and formulas. When I meet a biologist, my strongest memory is filling out a series of worksheets teeming with vocab terms about cell life. Even through I rationally know that both chemistry and biology are infinitely more fascinating then these memories suggest, I can’t really overcome the reminder of fear or boredom.

I have gotten a variety of reactions when I tell someone that I study history. Usually it’s positive, sometimes it isn’t. What I have started to notice is that behind a the reaction is often some assumption about the field of history. Some of these assumptions mirror those I notice in students. Below are some of the reactions I’ve gotten through the years when I mention that I study United States history, and a quick take about how these reactions resemble what happens in the history classroom:

“Is there really anything new to learn about US history?”
No joke, I had someone ask me this when I told them that I studied American history. The person asking the question wasn’t trying to be hostile (at least I don’t think so). Instead, he was curious how much historical inquiry could possibly be left, at least in a field where most practitioners aren’t trying to find new archeological sites.

Although it is usually not put so plainly, I think this question gets at one of the most common misconceptions students have about history. Many students see history as a set of clear-cut facts to be memorized, with the historian’s main job being to serve as a custodian of the known historical information. These students know that historians use sources, but they implicitly assume that these sources lend themselves to a set narrative. Many of the entries of this blog show ways we can undermine this persistent conception of history, including Christy Hyman’s use of GIS to show students how different tools can lead to different narratives. However, much of history instruction on the secondary and college level still seems to fit into this mold of memorizing set facts for a test based around recall.

“Why study United States history? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on something less familiar?”
I got asked this about a year ago at a party, and honestly it threw me for a loop for a few seconds. My first response was that one should learn about the history of as many different places and time periods as possible. I would love students to take more global history, and, like most Americanists, I am very supportive of  attempts to add a more global dimension to the US history survey. After answering something along those lines, I gave the standard litany about it being important for us to understand how history has shaped our institutions and our daily lives.

Students often come into the US history classroom with a false sense of familiarity with the material. By the time they reach college, a student has probably had at least two US history classes, one in middle school and another in high school. Even if they don’t remember the details, they think they know the basic story, especially that of the some anchor events like the Revolution or Civil War. As educators, this sense of familiarity can put us in a tough position. On the one hand, we know that even if a student has previously learned about the Revolution, that does not mean that they have content mastery. On the other hand, we need to try to make seemingly familiar events unfamiliar, to convince students that there is a something strange and new to the history of a place as close-by as their neighborhood.

“Oh, history, that’s great! ‘Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’”
I honestly hate this expression. I would pay an undetermined amount of money to never hear it again (along with “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”). This line actually comes from a George Santayana passage where he compared the progress of a people who retain knowledge to a group of ahistorical “savages” who live in “perpetual infancy.” So, a pretty problematic sentiment even before one gets at its worth.

Sometimes, students like history for reasons that make historians uncomfortable. For example, some students assume that history helps us understand how the future is going to unfold. As instructors, we don’t want to kill the underlying belief in history being useful, but we would never claim to being skilled predictors of the future (my apologies if I am forgetting someone, but I don’t remember talking to a historian who guessed that the election would look like this). One of the more interesting challenges to a historian is to show students the value of historical understanding even while emphasizing the inherent modesty of historical claims. As Kevin Gannon recently discussed, this attention to historical study can build a sense of empathy useful to evaluating historical claims. While this empathy may not lead to grand predictions about election results or the fall of American empire, it can help enrich a student’s understanding of the present moment.

“Oh, what do you think ____ (insert some historical actor, 9/10 times the Founding Fathers, although Lincoln also gets some use) would have thought about ___ (insert contemporary phenomenon, almost always political in nature).
The Onion has adequately summed up how I want to respond to this question. However, what I try to do is emphasize the strangeness of the past and break down the idea of the “founding generation” having as some kind of monolithic perspective. While I still haven’t figured out how to do that in a dinner conversation, I think most of us are always trying to find ways to undermine presentism in the course of semester.


I really haven’t presented any solutions to these misconceptions, but they are some of the topics that I hope to examine on the blog this year. As usual, I know that I will learn a lot from my fellow TUSH bloggers.

What kind of reactions have you gotten when you tell people that you study history? What kind of reaction would we want a former student to have if they ever meet a historian at a party? What association with historical study would we want them to retain from our classes?

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