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Sep 5, 2018

How Should Young People Learn History?

Is history education, before an advanced mental age, really just a propaganda problem? The way out is creative, individualist history.

This is a transcription of a recent interview on the Cato Daily Podcast, in which Caleb O. Brown asks our own Assistant Editor for Intellectual History, Anthony Comegna, about better ways to learn history.


Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Tuesday, August 28, 2018. I’m Caleb Brown. History from the top down versus bottom up: the methods of history give us wildly different stories about how our predecessors lived and what mattered to them. But is history, especially of the the top down variety, something students should actually grapple with at school? Anthony Comegna from Libertarianism.org comments.

Brown: There is a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me, which is one of—I think—probably several books that essentially go through popular history texts aimed at young people, and just pointing out how—how many problems there are and how significant a lot of these problems are. Um, If I understand your view correctly, there are big problems with how history is taught to young people, and, more so, that maybe history is not the kind of subject that young people ought to even…have to grapple with. Why do you think that?

Comegna: Well, I’ve been starting to think about this lately…uh, because of a couple conversations I’ve had with a few people, especially historian Michael Douma, and reading his latest book, uh Creative Historical Thinking. We have this very deeply-held, built-in cultural assumption that history is hugely important, a bedrock subject like reading and writing, and you know—uh, a couple other things like basic math, numeracy—We should also have some kind of historical literacy, some kind of geographical literacy. And I don’t necessarily dispute that, but I think that we should do it in other ways. Now, I’m not an expert on education, so I’m not really going to talk about how we should educate and the different, uh, you know, methods of educating—especially young people—but talking as an historian, history provides an especially difficult problem here because it is not a set of information, it’s a set of skills. It’s something you have to do yourself. The past is a collection of data and information about things that occurred before the present moment. Uh, history is an analytical process of finding meaning in all of that material. And this is something that you, the individual, have to do on your own. Otherwise, you’re not actually doing history or engaging in that discipline. You’re not learning it, either. The way that we’re taught history, especially as children—say before the high school level, perhaps even most of us at high school—the way we’re taught history is as an endless stream of information, uh, some of which is especially important, but that importance is also filled in for us. In very few cases are students actually doing the analytical work themselves, and doing or learning history.

Brown: So, is part of the problem then that there is a teacher in the front of the room delivering facts to be remembered by young people, and not questions being presented to young people and some innumerate number of resources provided to try to find out what they think is the most important thing?—Or is that even still failing to accomplish a key element of learning history?

Comegna: Well, I think you’re right on both angles there. There’s, there’s more to it than that, but there’s also a big problem with just the simple pedagogy of, uh, you know, the way that our schools run. Now, as I understand it—or,  I’ve been [laughs] as several people have commented to me—that history is not the only discipline that you have to really do yourself in order to actually learn it. It’s not the only discipline that’s based on analyzing information and finding meaning for oneself in all of that data. Uh, lots of other disciplines are like that and we can, you know, dig into them one-by-one and find examples of where they work that way. I think it’s especially obvious in a case, uh, in the case of history, but you know, yeah what we…what we have in grade school certainly is textbooks that far oversimplify whatever it is that they’re looking at, they often present information that is simply wrong, or it’s wrong because it’s been oversimplified so much it might as well be wrong. We have things that are, uh—the importance of an event is conveyed to the child so the child can then understand it, internalize that information, and go forth and be a good citizen with it, right? You put that history knowledge in your pocket, you understand why your teacher says or the textbook says that it’s meaningful and important for you to know, and then you’re supposed to—I don’t know—go, just go be a good citizen now that you’re informed. But, uh, it turns out you’re not actually informed about anything substantive. And, the, the only analytical work that’s been done by the professor—the teacher, rather—and the textbook, is then given to the student as propaganda.

Brown: So I hear conservatives complain about how poorly in the United States we do civic education, and we haven’t, uh, inculcated young people with this particular set of ideas about what America is, what the dream was when it was—the United States came into its own. And on the other side I hear from, uh, typical Progressives that we have not told people the real truth about the history of this country and how groups that, uh, were traditionally marginalized or treated very, very poorly have never been given their due, and that, uh, a whole lot of what history is about is…privileging one group over another and that this happens over and over and over again. Uh, it seems like what you’re pitching is something entirely different. They want to fight that battle over the minds of young people and talk about differing ideas about what history is, and this is what ought to be taught. You seem to be saying something entirely different.

Comegna: Yeah, I’d like to think so, at least. And again, this comes from Michael Douma and his book on Creative Historical Thinking. I think that’s really the call that we have to make, especially as libertarian historians who are in a very niche state—both relative to the historian, or the historical field, and you know, um, within American politics. Um, we’re very marginalized, but we have the ability to make this very powerful call for more creative thinking in a field like history where uh, you know, we don’t believe like the conservatives do that there is a “True Past” out there, that if only we were teaching that then things would be right because we would be informed by all the great information that is actually out there about our history and then we can use that to inform what we do in the present and build a better future. And I actually see no particular reason that we should privilege past information over information that comes to us from the present or information that we, uh, would like to bring to fruition about the future. There’s no particular reason that we should privilege things that happened in the past as a source of knowledge and wisdom rather than the things that are going on around us now. And, for that matter, there is no True Past out there to be gleaned because it’s always being interpreted by an individual mind.

Brown: Well, and, and teachers—as I recall back to learning history in middle school and high school—teachers always come at you with either a strongly implied lesson or a strongly implied takeaway from these events. These things happened, these are all the things I just told you, and the clear lesson is X.

Comegna: Right, I think that’s, that’s an example of how our educational institutions really are profoundly conservative still. Um, that we, we do learn that there are lessons to be drawn from the past that are [of] tremendously bedrock value to us, you know, our knowledge of history is considered to some degree a bedrock of our current civilization. I think that’s wrong, or misleading, mis-taken. Um, but that is a conservative point of view going back, very, very, very long—that we should learn from the past, cherish it, treasure it and its goodness, and revive that in the present day and build the future on that basis. And, you know, again the way that—whatever the individual teacher’s politics are—the way that they teach history is actually profoundly conservative. Now, the Progressives that you mentioned, they might be closer to what I’m saying because they do—in at least our current context of historical academia—they do accept, sort of, this postmodernist idea that all history is something done by a subject, and it’s created by the individual historian. It’s not actually a set of facts out there that we find. So, they do sort of understand that, but like you said, the way that they then actually teach that is by hammering away at, uh, people as though they were essential—you know, members of essential groups. Or that there are essential qualities about individuals that define you as a person, uh, and that’s not true either. You know, libertarians have to introduce that creative element of individualism and thinking about people as more than the sum of their group affiliations, and the complexity of the interactions between all of those things in an individual person’s mind, and informing their experience. That is all so complex, it requires tremendous creativity in our thinking about people, tremendous empathy for people, and a will to dive into their headspace like really nobody else is willing to do, because they—other camps out there thinking about the past and trying to teach it—they want to find a particular point of view that they can support with historical information. They want to drill that into people’s heads and change society that way. The creative person, I would argue, the creative person is willing to let everybody come to their own conclusions, and a multiplicity of different stories emerges.

Brown: Alright, so, uh, the vision of history as an activity that you’re presenting seems to negate people doing this seriously before they’re at least in their 20s.

Comegna: You know, maybe younger people could effectively learn history, but they have to be independently learning it. They have to be doing it on their own. I think as a teacher, you can give them skills. You should be skills-building in class. You shouldn’t be drilling information. I mean, of course, you can get into that conversation about teaching for tests and things like that. I mean, that’s all awful, of course.

Brown: And, and, of course, the limited time frame in which you have to communicate what you’re trying to communicate.

Comegna: Yeah, it does not work for this sort of a discipline. You should spend class time building skills, engaging especially with primary sources, trying to make the students empathize with the subject that they’re studying—like, as an individual person that actually had a real life, that actually did these things, etc. etc., you know. Perhaps you have real, original sources like letters that you can bring into them and hand them out around the room and have them make sense of this story, you know? Make them do it on their own. If you’re drilling information, if you’re reading a textbook, if you’re treating the past as a set of information—or, rather, if you’re treating history as set of information, you’re doing it all wrong. It’s something that you have to learn on your own and you have to do on your own. Otherwise, it’s propaganda.

Brown: How do libertarians fall into the trap of turning history into propaganda? I mean, I know that the left—and the right—does that, but libertarians have to fall into it as well. Of, of, when we tear down the heroes of left and right—which seems to be a popular libertarian hobby—there’s that same failure, has to happen to libertarians as well.

Comegna: Oh yeah, it does, and I think you could find examples of that in just about every narrative history produced by a libertarian, partly because it is, after all, our own individual story that we’re telling, and that is a reflection in large part of ourselves, not of the past that we’re studying. It’s a reflection of ourselves as individuals. What we’re looking for in the past comes out in what we write about it. So, let me just use—I mean, we could draw all sorts of examples: from people who love Thomas Jefferson even though he was, you know, probably a rapist, uh, then you could go to the neo-Confederate types of people who want to find a hero even in the Confederacy, because they hate Lincoln so much. But we could use myself as an example. I work on the Loco-Focos, which I would argue were the libertarians before Americans started using the word “libertarian.” Um, they were around from about the 1830s through about the 1850s, and they had all sorts of problems, but I love these people—they’re my people. You know, I’ve spent years studying them and reading all their writings, and their letters to each other, and sharing their lives with them. I feel what they went through, I’ve experienced a lot of that in my own life and activism as a young libertarian. I know these people, I love these people, I care about these people—Many of them were horrible. And we all are, you know, ready to fall into that trap because of the very nature of what we’re doing. History is self-exploratory just as much as it is an exploration of the past. So we’re all ready to fall into that trap—We have to be very creative to find our ways out of it. And I think that is mainly what we’re lacking because we don’t learn in school to be creative in our historical thinking.

Brown: Is part of that—uh, the problem—having heroes at all, or having people with whom you have, in a sense, sided with, um, before you really dig into the history, or have a narrative that you’d like to discover?

Comegna: Yeah, I think that problem mainly comes about because frankly, most of all our history is history from above, where you get the hero’s perspective on things. Their lives matter, their books, their laws, their deeds matter; the great events that circled around them—those things are what get chapters in the books…um, and we don’t really do much history from below or pay attention to the history of normal people and their contributions to the world, marginalized people and what they’ve done, and so we don’t learn, you know, the heroes who are actually living heroic lives. We learn about people with power, and how to treat them as heroes, you know? Um, they have the power, and so they hold a privileged place in the historical record, and in the narrative that gets built up right after their time period. Like let’s say Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, right? That’s a good example because Lincoln’s the hero who won—the popular victory, at least—and Jefferson Davis is the leftover hero of the people who hate Lincoln. Why do we have to choose between those two sides when there’s a whole country’s-worth of average people who didn’t run massive exploitation machines that were enslaving their armies and stealing property and imprisoning and torturing people without trial for political crimes? Why, why do we have to choose between two awful actors just because those are the two dominant narratives of the event from above?—No. We should do more of our history from below, and with much more creativity.

Brown: Anthony Comegna is Assistant Editor for Intellectual History at Libertarianism.org. You can subscribe to and rate the Cato Daily Podcast at ITunes, Google Podcasts, and—when you think about it—say “Alexa, play the Cato Daily Podcast.” And you can follow us on Twitter @CatoPodcast.