In the comments to this post, New Kid and sqadratomagico disagreed with me on whether or not history should be a required subject. I really think that it's important enough to require -- not so much for content as for teaching people how we do history. I've argued before that history is not necessarily -- should not necessarily -- have to be relevant to our students. I think that's very true in terms making connections between, say, what the Romans did and what we do. More importantly, I think that kind of emphasis and (mis)use of historical learning lead us to the kind of thing Matt Gabriele talks about here.
So how do we teach history and not fall prey to teaching false analogies in order to make it 'relevant'? I think -- and this is just a suggestion -- that it is not so much the content that we should make relevant.
Let me 'splain -- No. It is too much. Let me sum up.* I think the information we teach in inherently relevant and interesting. But it's relevant because of the questions we ask. This is at the root of why I think history should be required, and taught in ways that try to inculcate in our students the fundamental processes of inquiry, reason, and explanation that allow students to then look at history by themselves. It's relevant because the questions that we ask and try to answer about the past are the same kinds of questions that we should be asking about the world around us. If we go a step further, we can help students to understand why, for example, neither Vietnam nor The Crusades are good comparisons for the current situation in Iraq or for the cultural conflict between Islam and the industrialized West. If we do our jobs well, I think our students should come out of our classes with the confidence to say, "Yes, I can understand that you think the Iraq War and the Vietnam War look something alike on the surface, but what about X? Y? Z? If we look at those things, we can see that they are not really that much alike. But the answers to X, Y, and Z help us to figure out what really is going on." Or something like that. To really sum up, I think that it's the way historians are taught to interrogate their sources and ask and answer questions that are the most relevant and most transferable skills we have to offer. The content is always there, and I think that we humans always want to make analogies. That need is what drives many people critique and understand the present through the past. And yeah, I think that, if more people had some decent training in history, people might be a little less complacent. It's that tension between the desire to find explanations through analogy and the discipline of picking apart those analogies for a better understanding that lies at the heart of what we do. If we teach that part better, I think we'll be doing a better job and creating a greater appreciation for history. The hard part is that really, what I'm calling history isn't what most of my students think history is. Still, the best comments on my evals come from people who praise the emphasis on primary sources. Go figure.
OTOH ... I was thinking last night that, when I taught at several campuses where history was not required, I had better students. My life was much happier when I had students who actually cared about doing well in my subject, rather than just passing a required class. These days, I have rockin' FTEs, but I also have a ton of students (depressingly, many of them are education majors) who take my classes because they have to, and see themselves as clocking time towards a piece of paper. Alas, my post on student attitudes must wait.
*Apologies to The Princess Bride and Inigo Montoya.