What Happened to the Narrative Method of Teaching History?

Most students do not find history an interesting subject before graduating from high school (unless they have an exceptional teacher, of course).  Most students see no point to studying history, or what relevance most of it has to their lives now.

Sadly, most history classes at the high school level involve memorizing lists of military or political events, and names of leaders.  But all this is meaningless to most students.

When I was a child in elementary school, I recall my father telling me, “History is like a big, long story.  That makes it easy to learn and easy to remember.”

Yet the history lessons I had in school, and even in University classes, were nothing like this.  Since 1960 or before, most history is now presented in Social Studies “Units,” or in disjointed tidbits mixed into lessons on geography or the arts.  What is missing, however, is any sense of cause and effect, or how any of these periods tie together or transitioned from one change to another.  Thus, history has become, for most, memorizing random facts with no meaning, in order to pass a test.

HOW OUR SOCIETAL VIEWS OF TIME CAUSED THIS SITUATION:

We must look briefly at the three methods of viewing time.

CHAOTIC TIME is how time is viewed by a small child.  Events follow each other randomly, and it is hopeless to try to impute any meaning to these events.

CYCLICAL TIME arose with the very first societies.   Natural cycles of planetary events began to be linked with human activities such as planting, harvesting, hunting, and feasting.  Lengths of days, and times of year, were measured by watching the stars or other natural phenomena.  Cyclical belief systems and practices arose in early societies all around the world.  Examples of some cyclical systems include astrology, the Cult of Osiris, Feng Shui, or the Aztec Calendar.   Through repetition, cyclical time was able to conquer chaotic time.

Most early societies believed in a cyclical view of time, in which patience, ritual, and the healing power of time-from-nature were valued.  The ability to divine nature’s energy and use it was highly valued (Strauss, 11).   One advantage of belief in cyclical time is that when societies have horrible wars, or fall apart, these times are seen as temporary, as being a “winter season” from which the spring and a renewal will eventually come.

Things changed with the arrival of monotheism, especially Christianity.  From its earliest days, Christianity tried to stamp out the cyclical view of time.   They denounced it as “calendrical paganism” and did their best to stamp out non-linear thought-systems such as astrology (Strauss, 10).   Yet, they were never able to stamp it out completely.  When modernity, and especially the Enlightenment arrived, the Western World switched to a LINEAR VIEW OF TIME.

The greatest achievement of LINEAR TIME has been to give all mankind the sense that we are improving ourselves, that we are MAKING PROGRESS TOWARD A BETTER END.  We now “prize the ability to defy nature’s energy and overcome it,”  (Strauss, 11).

By the sixteenth century, printed copies of the Christian Bible were now circulating, and there was a new urgency in European society, as people now began speculating about Christ’s second (and final) coming.  Early English settlements transported this linearism of religious purpose in building utopias to America, where it greatly influenced future American society.  Waves of immigrants saw themselves as the builders of new utopias–Calvinists, Puritans, and others transported ideas of “building a New Jerusalem, as defenders of ‘God’s Chosen Country,’ and pioneers in the service of a Manifest Destiny.”  (Strauss, 10)

Linear societies define EXPLICIT GOALS (whether moral or material), and set out to deliberately attain them.  When these goals are reached, people feel triumphant.  This leads us to view life as SELF-DIRECTED, and our personal lives as SELF-MADE.  These ideas instilled in Western societies the idea of LINEAR PROGRESS toward an EVER-BETTER MATERIAL and societal future.  These were the ages of belief in technological progress solving all problems, of Manifest Destiny in America.

In America, the HAPPY ENDING is truly our NATIONAL BELIEF  (Strauss, 11).

THE BIG CATASTROPHIC CHANGE:

This view held until World War I.  The entire Western World was affected.  Suddenly, we were NO LONGER SURE of the idea of continual progress.  Now, we had the fear that our linear path may, in fact, be DOWNWARD.

Despair and dystopian ideas took hold.  (The optimism following World War II created a reprive from these ideas for a time; however, they returned in the 1960s.)  Progress doesn’t look as positive as it did in the past; the fear of nuclear winter (or planetary destruction), robotic technology replacing human jobs, and the new fear that HISTORY IS RANDOM AND DIRECTIONLESS has replaced Manifest Destiny and Belief in Continual Positive ProgressThe FEELING of CHAOTIC TIME has returned, as if events follow each other randomly, without purpose or reason.

THE CHANGE IN HISTORY TEACHING:

Dramatic changes in history teaching methods during the twentieth century were caused by changes in our societal view of time.

When the narrative method was used to teach history, the glue which held it together was that it was a teleological view.  This view means that history had a beginning and was headed toward a particular end.  In more religious times (and among those who currently believe “End Times” are coming) this would mean the time of the last Judgement, or the times of Revelation, or the End of the World, or the Second Coming of Christ.  In America’s past, the idea of Manifest Destiny came out of this teleological view.

Among the less religious, a secular teleological view was substituted, that of continual progress toward the self-betterment of mankind (Strauss, 11).

The teleological, linear, narrative view essentially taught (in religious times) that the victors of history were part of the God-approved progression of history toward an eventual religious triumph and religious conclusion:  including the rise and fall of societies; the conquest of societies and peoples; the people in positions of authority having the approval of God to be there, etc.    Events such as the genocide and/or enslavement of  Native Americans were viewed in the past as replacement of inferior societies and worldviews with morally-correct and improved peoples and world-views.  Today’s ways of looking at events was not even considered, since the teleological view implied God’s approval.

Generally speaking, science eschews teleology.  Teleologically-based “grand narratives” are now frowned upon in post-modern society.  However, in America, the belief in scientific progress leading mankind toward a Utopian end has persisted until recently.

For example, the television  series Star Trek was so popular precisely because it supported the idea of hope and progress being able to solve all future social problems of hunger, poverty, wise government through democratic institutions.  Furthermore, they go throughout the universe spreading hope, light, and progress by means of the morally upstanding Federation (seeming to represent the ideas of the United States after WWII) against the Klingon Empire of Darkness (seeming to represent the Western ideas of communist empires of evil and darkness).

WHAT WE ARE LEFT WITH TODAY:

History classes in schools and in text books (where they are even still used) tend to be very light on examining the time periods between major catastrophic or important events.  This is partly due to time constraints, but it is also due to the fact that so many people and societal groups DISAGREE on the causes.

Text books took to leaving out anything controversial decades ago so that they can sell one or two versions of their books across most state lines.  Books and history courses that offend no one are now the order of the day.  When causes are taught, they are taught in isolation from other events.

Here is one example.  Hardly anyone knows why World War I was fought.  Students are taught, “The cause was the shooting of the archduke.  Then everyone began fighting.”  In fact, the real causes are found in the larger, global events of the previous one-to-two centuries leading up to the war, in the expansion of the British Empire, particularly in India, and the Great Game played between Russia and Britain, and alliances which took place in Europe, concerned with balance-of-power politics.  Students learn little to nothing about any of these things, and learn nothing of how the basic geography of certain countries drives their foreign policy.  Once these things are studied, World War I doesn’t seem so mysterious.  (See references below if interested in pursuing these topics further.)

For years, as a teacher, I wondered both WHEN and WHY the teaching of history changed, and I am finally glad to at least understand what happened.  I wish I had solutions toward improving it in modern society.  But when every group seems to be pushing their own agenda, and with no one really in charge, I have no idea how to do that.  Any thoughts would be welcome in discussion below.

REFERENCE, AND RECOMMENDED READING:

Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub., 1997.

OTHER SUGGESTED READING:

Tharoor, Shashi.  An Era of Darkness:  The British Empire in India.  Aleph Book Company, 2016.

Frankopan, Peter.  The Silk Roads:  A New History of the World.  Bloomsbury Publishing, PLC, 2015.

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11 Responses to “What Happened to the Narrative Method of Teaching History?”

  1. Happy Elf Mom Says:

    I know for me personally, looking at my genealogy makes history much more interesting. So why would my great-great aunt be employed as a “coil winder” at an “electric bell company” in the census? Why would one of my great- (x10 or so) grandfathers fight the Indians as a British soldier? And so on. Or you can find your ancestors’ draft cards or ship manifests etc etc. Then when you think that these people are part of your past and part of the world’s past it’s pretty amazing.

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      I totally agree! What a great way to make history relevant. That was actually one good thing one of my high school teachers did. He gave us each a project of making a family tree.

  2. Jim Taggart Says:

    Here’s a recent tiny example that relates to your subject. My oldest grand daughter is in in grade 10, here in Ottawa, Ontario. A couple of weeks ago, Lily and I got to talking about school and her aspirations for university. I started talking about the applied sciences and the fascinating careers one can find in this area. This led to the two of us talking about history, a subject Lily dislikes. So I started quizing her on her knowledge on WWII events (since my dad served in the Canadian Navy during the war) and the US presidents during that time period (FDR and Truman). We ended up talking about the the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in particular the Manhattan Project.

    Fast forward one week: I got a text message one afternoon from Lily who was at school. She’d just gotten out of history class. During the class, her teacher was talking about WWII and asked the students who had heard of the Manhattan Project. Not a hand went up except for Lily, who briefly explained what it was. The teacher was surprised but impressed.

    As I jokingly said to Lily a few days later, it pays to hang out with your grand father.

  3. Martha Says:

    Nice – all three of your suggested authors are available in our local library system! I look forward to sampling them.

    I am currently reading Howard Zinn’s “A Young People’s History of the United States”. I’m only about two chapters in. Yet, with each page, I think “where were these stories when I was in school?!”. They went untold and overlooked.

  4. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Email comment received from B.A.S.: “Excellent article, Lynne. Of course, today, to lay down a master narrative is often deemed to be “oppressing” some group or other.

    Getting rid of social studies and replacing it with history & geography would be a good first step. Montessori education is still built around the great story framework and it is used stating with the equivalent of grade one. Works, too: my children know far more about history, despite no real interest in extending their knowledge of it, than their non-Montessori developed peers.”

  5. Susan Says:

    I noticed the same thing too when my children were at school, history was a series of unrelated ‘topics’ but no chronological overview of what happened or why.

  6. William M Stott Says:

    Interesting. Those who have lost the hope of an afterlife must find an earthly goal to live for. That goal can only be the achievement of a decent life for all humanity. This will require a revolutionary (nothing less) change in consciousness that encourages a radical (nothing less) redistribution of the world’s wealth. See this discussed in the documentary “The Future of Work and Death.”

  7. sandford johnson Says:

    I found you’re discussion of time fascinating and printed the whole thing for further thought. I’m wondering if you’d ever related these changes to how we develop mental, socially, etc from infancy throughout life.  At birth the infant experiences only chaos but quickly identifies the source of nourishment and refines her skills for survival in an upward spiral that leads to education, a stable standard of living and a happy life that contributes to a civil society. I imagine that during Chaotic history, humans were bashing in heads for the choicest food, sexual partner and hunting spot.   As the strongest, wiliest survived over generations, they developed a collective intelligence of their surroundings and applied this information to agriculture, hunting, preserving and organizing small cooperative groups with more and more effective social structures.This would be the Cyclical Time when they mastered agriculture, organized hunting and dabbled in group governance.  As they found more civil ways of dealing with one another and producing a more comfortable way of life for more people. (Lynne, I’ve got to stop here–I have work to do and appointments to keep.  But you see where I’m going…..It’s fascinating to think about. Thanks for telling me about the concept. You can bet I’ll be reading and thinking lots more about it.  I’m going to read some of  the books you’ve mentioned. Priscilla

  8. Jim Jansson Says:

    Lynne, this is truly an excellent piece. It does something that all teachers should strive to do and that is go beyond the what and when of something happening to explain the why it happened in the first place. It is answering the why that makes life interesting and it also the reason that mankind came to prominence on this planet. In fact, I believe we are ‘The WHY Animal.’

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