There is no better subject for 21st century learning than history.
History is essential to self-understanding and to our collective life, shaping the ways young people see themselves in the world. Yet history can seem tame, dulled from casual familiarity. Consequently, new ways of connecting students to the past are crucial in the new century.
History is put before our students from the time preschoolers are introduced to Thanksgiving to the time they prepare for Advanced Placements tests. And the repetition of names and concepts can create the illusion that our students understand more than they really do. It can create pressure to settle issues with pat answers that cannot, in fact, be settled with multiple choice exams and memorized replies. History can appear boring because it seems resolved, fixed, and inert.
American history, in particular, appears bounded and constant. Firmly circumscribed by geographic borders and chronological markers, American history supposedly gains color, depth, detail, and moral complexity through repetition. Important topics come in and out of focus and often remain disconnected. A coherent sense of the past often eludes even dedicated students.
But we can devise more intentional, targeted, and interesting ways of teaching history for the 21st century. Some of those are due to technology, like the vast new digital archives that have appeared in recent years. But in order to take advantage of such resources, we must move from the memorization of settled facts into a disciplined exploration of the historical record. History can be electrified with questions rather than mere answers, animated by new techniques and methods of inquiry rather than tired strategies. History can be engaged rather than mastered, subdued.
There is, in fact, no better subject for 21st–century learning than history. History is made every day and so the historical record is displayed anew on every newscast, front page, online video, cartoon, and blog; we need to be able to read the meanings of those productions with a critical eye to live responsibly. Voting is problem solving in real time with real consequences and every vote is framed with assumptions about where history has been and where it is going. Historical understanding is fundamentally collaborative, emerging only by testing assumptions and beliefs alongside those of others.
We live in history every moment of our lives. The story of everything that happened before today simply cannot be intrinsically boring. Rote methods and unexamined assumptions, however, can be. We have the opportunity to create new tools and redefine our purposes so that we teach history with the excitement it deserves.