On the Sources of Inspiration and Their Price: History for Schools, for Academia and for the Public

By Vansover, Yaron | Education, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

On the Sources of Inspiration and Their Price: History for Schools, for Academia and for the Public


Vansover, Yaron, Education


Both teaching and learning history have for many years evoked dissatisfaction which has almost become built-in: Studying history just does not succeed in arousing interest among high school students in Britain and throughout the Western world, on both sides of the Atlantic. Students hate history and rank it as the least liked subject in their school schedule (See, for example: Zarnowski 1999; Loewen 1995 (1); Stanley 2000; Podany 2001). They also do not know history.

Among experts in the areas of history teaching and curricula design, there is consensus about the need to improve the status of history in the classroom, and there is also wide agreement about how to do it: This usually focuses on the idea of eliminating the division between history in school and in academia in general, and specifically emphasizes the importance of primary sources for the work of the historian, proposing methods of using these in the classroom. In other words, they believe that using primary sources in history lessons is likely to improve the state of classroom history teaching. It appears that there is justification in their arguments. But perhaps it is possible to consider different directions. This article argues that the view of academic history as a source of inspiration for school history closes off other alternatives. The article suggests varying the sources of inspiration, broadening them to include history done outside academia as well, that is, public history, and seeking sources there which may extract school history from its crisis mode. One such source of inspiration could, for example, be the "public historian", Ken Burns.

Ken Bums is the most famous and most influential historian today in the United States, and probably the most interesting (Harlan, 2003: 169). But he does not belong to any history department at any university. Ken Bums is a filmmaker. He writes, produces and directs documentary films dealing with chapters in American history, films which have gained tremendous popularity. He views himself first of all as a movie-maker and at most, as an amateur historian. But if you corner him in order to clarify what he "really" is, he will answer that he is "an emotional archaeologist" (Edgerton 2004: 5). Through the process of making films he "digs into" events in a way which arouses emotional identification with the appropriate riddle which fascinates him: What is the glue which has connected the American nation for more than 200 years when it does not share a common religion and not even a common language? This alchemy is what interests him. Bums channels this emotional archaeology and alchemy to a sharply defined direction as he refers to the etymology of the word "history": "The word history is mostly made up of the word story. I'm interested in telling stories" (Cunningham 2005: 17). The responsibility that Burns has to his viewing audience to tell them a story that will fascinate them, and its realization on the television screen both characterize public history which is carried on outside the boundaries of academia. Public history, which took root and flourished in the last quarter of the twentieth century, has been intended to create interesting history for the wider public.

I think that being "uninteresting" is a privilege that perhaps belongs to history in academia. (In any case the students will remain sitting, usually silently, during the lecture even if it is boring. Which of us has not had this experience?) But school history does not have this privilege. School history simply cannot allow itself not to be interesting. A teacher who does not succeed in interesting the pupils "loses" his/her class. Teachers have to struggle constantly to gain the children's attention and always, but always, to be more interesting than the alternatives (a conversation with a friend sitting alongside, sending an SMS, and others). Otherwise, students will move on to the alternatives. "To be interesting" is not a weighty issue for academic history, but it is critical for school history and . …

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