this is an idea i have been turning over for some time in my head but will finally put out there since i am too exhausted to do any other work and or to care any longer if it makes sense (that said, it does seem that some seemingly smart people have suggested similar things – e.g. here and here and here – so i am hoping it is not such a crazy suggestion).
i should also preface this by saying that i read historical non-fiction for fun, found monuments men to be a page-turner, thought the ancient egypt exhibit at the field museum was probably the coolest thing ever — so thinking about making history exciting (not just in an indiana jones way) is, well, exciting. in addition, i’ve heard a few too many way-off statements of late, about what reagan did and did not do or how the germans bombed the US at pearl harbor…
i am beginning to think that history curricula – in high school, undergrad – should be taught backwards, from current affairs to the ancient past. in part, this is because in all the classes i took, we never reached the present day. american history usually got us to truman or eisenhower and then i’d sort of fill in the vietnam era from music, books and movies. in european history, we’d similarly make it to yalta and the beginning of decolonization and then we’d run out of time in the school year after spending a month on gandhi.
this leaves out an awful lot of pretty important stuff with immediate consequences for what’s going on in the world today. and while it is important to know about the cradle of civilization and the greek city-states… some of the stuff from the past 20 years is pretty important too — including important for being a national and global citizen. and, by being connected to current event, it seems more easily graspable than memorizing a line of kings starting from 1066.
it’s understandable that it is fundamentally easier to teach from the beginning onward — it makes chronological sense, it’s how most of the books already do it and it moves us from a point of less information to a point of overwhelming amounts of information involving ~193+ countries and wars around the world rather than the world wars. at which point in [enter present year] would one start? which part of the world or with which event? would these choices seem to reveal a political stance or ideological preference?
these are though questions. but, i’d like to see more people give it a try, peeling back from a key event to its antecedents, to discover how we got to where we are now. in so doing, it may be that history ‘matters’ more and can better sustain student attention and also that concepts like the counterfactual could be taught in a way that the inevitable passage of events in the right direction would not allow by forcing questions about the causes-of-effects rather than the effects-of-causes. moreover, this approach may better make the point of the political-ness of the telling of history – it is not just a march of facts but selected facts or near-facts or things-that-sound-like-they-could-be-facts selected by particular people at particular points in time. this, too, is an important lesson.