5 Better Ways to Teach History

We are essentially teaching the propaganda of the past in history classes. 

Sentences like “the US went into war with Iraq” wash over the reality of decision making and make the students adopt the points of view of Bush and Saddam. Countries don’t get offended. Countries don’t decide things. People do.

And then other people go and shoot at each other until their leaders decide who won.

Our history classes are involuntary training into collectivism.

  1. Countries do stuff. Or leaders

History teaching is stuff that countries did. For the reasons their leaders told.

No wonder we find it hard not to repeat history. We don’t understand it because we only listen to the justifications.

This version is all about territory, prestige, human resources (aka subjects) and the more the merrier. Anything that mattered to the king. We identify with the kings so we grow up to be perfect subjects without a point of view of our own. History books never mention the perspective of the individual so we end up being suckers to Big Causes dictated by uninhibited leaders.

We are still thought the propaganda version of the past. The same things that have been told to people in the past to support wars and their own fleecing. Yeah, sure, there are tiny things that we know now, but it is essentially still the same version of history: groups do things to each other on command from their leader with solemn justifications.

But the assassination of a crown prince is only casus belli if you wanted to go to war.

2. The history of money

How money flowed. How stuff got financed. Who got to fleece whom. And why? 

It’s not a revolutionary idea that teaching about money and how stuff got financed (and what happened when it didn’t) is a central part of history. But finance is locked away from us behind a taboo.

Learning about the financial motivations behind decision making would clean up our understanding of history and set our priorities straight. Access to resources dictates what is going on on this planet and one of those resources in money. Today only the well-connected aristocracy, a few wealthy executives, and some crazy conspiracy theorists even consider this side of the story. And such a paranoia-infused secrecy makes things tedious and human progress half-blind.

It doesn’t help that we are commanded to treat money as taboo. Discussing something as basic as the amount of resources we need for a living is frowned upon.

We are asked to look away when the big guys discuss money. So in defense of our virtues we remain purposely blind to the ways we are fleeced and focus instead on national pride and official propaganda. We accept the official version of events at face value. Sure, they had to execute all Jews out of divine necessity and collective, historic guilt – not by any chance because the king owed money to one of them.

Teaching history as a story of kings makes us uninformed, vulnerable to propaganda and dumb. 

3. The history of innovations

Innovations and discoveries influence every second of your life. Scientists and innovators do useful work all the time to improve our lives. And yet, we are obsessed with the story of kings playing turf wars in our names. Because that’s what we are taught.

Inventors and scientists who drag us ahead are mentioned in the footnotes of science textbooks while politicians deserve an entire class: history. Leaders make themselves important: they kill and rob and make the rules. We ignore positive influencers because we are so frightened by the negative ones. But that doesn’t make it right.

We only commemorate scientists if they get a Nobel – but only because they can use them as a measure of national greatness. Their genius is obviously a cause for my pride. Because collectivism.

We all know the name of Hitler, Stalin, the prophets, and Genghis Khan, but we don’t know who invented the shipping container. The combined death toll of Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan and the prophets is in the hundreds of millions. Shipping containers improved the lives of billions. Whose names do we know?

If I had to live in a world with either Malcolm McLean or all our politicians and prophets in it, I would choose Malcolm McLean. 

It is crucial for future innovators to learn what picked up and why. And what didn’t pick up, or did so after multiple errors or in roundabout ways. How much politics and legal red tape can set you back. Build a healthy cynicism with the way things are and dare to imagine things differently.

Train kids to admire innovation as much as they suck up to territorial conquest – because that’s what they are taught. Kids should equate success with better lives – not just triumphant sports teams or the size of armies and blobs on the map.

I don’t want to hear another kid saying that she wants to be a president. They yearn power, not positive influence. And if they want to use the presidency to positively influence things from above they are way too elitist already. And that too comes from the way they learned history.

4. The history of human experience

How it was like to be someone like you

After all, this is what makes sense to an individual. To understand an age as if she was part of it – and to understand the present in broader perspective. In order to really understand an age history should tell you how it was like to be you at the time.

What would you believe in? What information would you have access to? How would you be fooled? What would you aspire to? What would your family pressurize you to do? Sure, it is complicated. But so is the current approach.

Today’s history class teaches you to think with the head of your leader. And not your own. This way you’ll identify with today’s leaders too – rather than thinking in your own shoes.

Reading about the state propaganda of the past makes as much sense as listening to it today. But look at how thoughtful people get when they see a weight loss ad from the past. Now that’s a perspective they should learn.

5. History of thinking and ideas

This one is my favourite.

How did people see the world from age to age? What were their taboos and what did those taboos meant to hide from them? What set them back? What did they think their limitations were? What information did they have access to and what was the ruling opinion? How did they eliminate dissent? What were the cliches people kept repeating? Where did those come from? What purpose did they serve and to whom?

The history of memes, carefully mapped and in various levels of abstraction would bridge the gap of human understanding that is caused by our dysfunctionally short adult lives.

It would also teach that ideas come from somewhere and they end up serving some people. Stop listening to the justification. Just look at the hands.

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Photo: MV APL Southampton container ship @ www.maritimephotographic.co.uk 

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