Making History More Than Your Story

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I recently attended a conference about the state of African American studies at the Shomburg Center in New York City. Many of the panels were a traditional array of graduate students and professors presenting their own research. But several innovative panels discussed pedagogy in African American studies. I was thrilled by a presentation in which a professor spoke about how she was working through including New York City’s recent immigrant groups in her more traditional syllabus for African American history classes. The recognition that history has an important and complex relationship with the present and the future is integral if we as educators want to keep history “active.”

I was less than thrilled however when the next day I listened to a room full of professors complain about how they are “terrified” for today’s youth because they have no political activism, no sense of their community’s history, and even no taste in music. What is the world coming to when our students are listening to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”? The End Is Nigh!! This discussion bothered me on two levels; it indicated that these professors had no sense of their own past (isn’t this the same thing your parents were saying about you when you were growing your hair long and listening to Rock and Roll and Funk?) and it reeked of the kind of mentality that makes history as inactive as possible for our students.

I believe that one of the most important things that you can do as a teacher is find a common ground with your students. This doesn’t mean that you Facebook friend each other, or meet for drinks, but simply that you relate to their understanding of the world, you acknowledge their social and cultural identities, and you find ways to have a dialogue that is not one-sided. This also perfectly lines up with concepts of active history. Active history is keeping history alive and relevant in the present. This is what a teacher is doing when he or she takes his or her student’s world into account when teaching history.

For instance, there is the current debate about technology in the classroom which is so eloquently laid out on this website. I agree that teachers need to find ways to work with new media, instead of fight against it. But this also applies to the content of your teaching.  This year I am TAing for a history of law class and we are always encouraging the students to see the law as organic and historically contingent. So shouldn’t we have discussions about how they relate to and understand the law? For instance, when we discuss the history of lynching in the United States, should we simply recount how Americans in the first half of the twentieth century perceived equality before the law and assume that our understanding of this phenomenon is the same as our students? In order to make history active, should we not discuss how they understand equality before the law today? How they perceive justice? How they can work to change the things that they do not agree with? And if they want to affect change, do we simply recommend that they use the same tactics that people were using in 1950s America? Do we glorify the 1960s, once again, by teaching them that these were the “good ole’” days of protest and that if we could get back to that the world would be a better place, thereby completely demeaning and disarming today’s youth’s style of protest?

Instead, I believe that teachers should encourage students to find their own voice, to adopt tactics for change that make sense to them, to recognize and celebrate their efforts to change the things they find unappealing in our society, and most importantly perhaps, to really listen (perhaps to listen actively?) to how their students understand their world and their place in it. It’s only then that we can encourage students to bring the past into their present, to learn from history, and to keep it active.

So next time we think about bemoaning how “lazy” and “apathetic” our students are, and how this is somehow related to the “loss” of the 1960s, bad music, and new technology, we should remember that it was a YouTube campaign, started by people born after the 1960s, and promoted by singers of new styles of music, that encouraged our youth to think that “It Gets Better.” And I believe that they can make that come true.

Katharine Bausch is a PhD candidate in the history department at York University. She is studying the relationship between African American and white American culture in the civil rights era.

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