Why Study History?: Thoughts on the Job of a Historian for History Teachers

A junior student asked me last May, during dorm duty, “Ms. Berry–What can you do with a history degree?”

Me: (joking) “You mean, besides do what I do?”

Student: (sheepishly) “Well… yes.”

Me: (in my best saleswomen voice with the goal of admiring her foresight, but also lessening her anxiety about the college process )…

I spoke somewhat apprehensively about the skills that are developed at a liberal arts school, and in the humanities especially (and noted this was from my limited perspective/experience). We discussed how the job she will likely do, probably has not yet been created... it was definitely an unintentional plug for the liberal arts approach. Then I spoke about being interested in what you are studying, and how important that is to success.

But I need a better answer to this question, “why study history?” While education is the focus of my career so far, why history education?  I have been with 30 teachers for the past week (mostly history, some English and one librarian) studying Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment. As we debate the enigmatic character of the father of both the Declaration of Independence and slave Sally Hemmings’ children (likely), we were constantly trying to reconcile competing images of a hero of the American national story. Should we care that he was a slave owner? He was a “man of his time”… but the argument goes, he was also “not a man of his times” (all men are created equal, unalienable rights etc). What is the historian’s job? What is the history teacher’s job? Is it to defend Jefferson? Apologize for Jefferson? Indict Jefferson? Are these even the right questions to be asking? (also these questions are at the heart of the AP US curriculum debate). The opinions and ideas of this group of teachers had me asking…what does it mean to be a historian? Perhaps, if I try to define the role I play in regards to Jefferson’s story, then I can ask a better question.

What is the job description of a historian? Often historians are teachers, and sometimes a teacher would identify as a historian. Are “professional” historians just those with a PhD?  What about the mental engines behind small town historical societies? But what exactly does a historian do? Study the past is the simplest description. So how do they study? It seems that the historian appropriates/adopts the methodology of other professions as they seek to study the past. What is the job description, then, of the history teacher? To facilitate burgeoning historians? To model being a historian? So then I return to my first question: what is the job description of a historian? A few ideas…

Tell stories.                      

Historians can be story tellers in the tradition of Herodotus.

Investigate the data.      

Historians can be scientists of the past, carefully measuring data with the precision of a chemist, but their scientific method is foiled by the countless  unknown variables.

Weigh the evidence.    

Historians can be lawyers, carefully weighing the available evidence to judge the past.

Listen and analyze.      

Historians can be psychologists, poring over diaries and letters with a Freudian lens judging sexuality, phobias and temperaments.

Architects of a national story.     

Historians can be politician-soldiers , “Defenders of the Faith” whatever that faith may be, if their hero is Thomas Jefferson, if their historical satan is Thomas Jefferson, some historians are in the business of defending the fairy tale given by the storytellers to young children.

Time travelers. 

Historians can yearn to be anthropologists as well, and travel back in time and live among and study their subjects, one reason for the many historical reenactments.

The verb “to reconcile” seems closest to the work I do with my students. See the Google definition below. The french word conciliare means “bring together”. How do we reconcile, or bring together the view of Jefferson as the author of words below yet also the view of him as salesmen of humans, and more contentiously, a rapist by modern standards?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Reconciliation has a positive connotation, but when a historian does it, is it a positive thing? Seeking to reconcile is an important part of the historian’s job, but we should, perhaps, clarify that it is a constant state of trying to reconcile, rather than asking students to square a circle. The hardest part of teaching history, I find, is the lack of a “right answer” for students. However, it is also my answer to “why study history”? There is no right answer, but seeking to answer, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not only a practice in critical thinking, but a constant acknowledgement of human complexity. Jefferson is the archetype of a historical paradox, a walking contradiction, and he is not unique.

Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson was mounted in the Jefferson Memorial in 1947, four years after the memorial opened, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011633648/

James Akin. “A Philosophic Cock,” Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804. Hand-colored aquatint. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140), http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefffed.html.

reconcile ˈrɛk(ə)nsʌɪl verb
verb: reconcile; 3rd person present: reconciles; past tense: reconciled; past participle:reconciled; gerund or present participle: reconciling
  1. 1.
    restore friendly relations between.
    “the king and the archbishop were publicly reconciled”
    • settle (a quarrel).
      “advice on how to reconcile the conflict”
      synonyms: reunite, bring (back) together (again), restore friendly relations between, restore harmony between, make peace between, resolve differences between, bring to terms; More

      “the news reconciled us”
      settle, resolve, patch up, sort out, smooth over, iron out, put to rights, mend, remedy, heal, cure, rectify
      “the quarrel was reconciled”
      antonyms: estrange, alienate
    • make or show to be compatible.
      “the agreement had to be reconciled with the city’s new international relations policy”
      synonyms: make compatible, harmonize, square, make harmonious,synthesize, make congruent, cause to be in agreement, cause to sit happily/easily with; More

      “it wasn’t easy trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his career”
    • make someone accept (a disagreeable or unwelcome thing).
      “he was reconciled to leaving”
      synonyms: accept, come to accept, resign oneself to, come to terms with, learn to live with, get used to, make the best of, submit to, accommodate oneself to, adjust oneself to, become accustomed to, acclimatize oneself to; More

      grin and bear it;
      informallike it or lump it
      “the creditors had to reconcile themselves to drastic losses of income and capital”
  2. 2.
    make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.
    “it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the financial accounts”
late Middle English: from Old French reconcilier or Latin reconciliare, from Latin re- ‘back’ (also expressing intensive force) + conciliare ‘bring together’.

The AP US History Controversy, Liberal Bias and History as the Study and Practice of Drawing Conclusions

The new AP United States history framework has prompted a lot of controversy. The media has picked it up in waves, first last summer, then in September with the sick-outs in Colorado, over the winter with the debates in Georgia, and most recently with the Oklahoma bill that has now been pulled for further review. Often the headlines describing the movement against the curriculum are laughable, employ Orwellian language, and references to North Korea and totalitarianism abound.

My AP classes were discussing the Scopes Monkey Trial and the culture wars of the 1920s (often cited as a parallel in reports on the AP US debates) while the Oklahoma debates were happening. There was a parallel between Foner’s discussion of the fundamentalists in our textbook and the technique of labeling opponents of the new framework with these volatile, extremist words. I recognized, perhaps begrudgingly, that there is a lot of support to revise the standards, just as there was a lot of support to enact Prohibition, the 1924 Immigration Act, teaching creationism etc. However my making that connection may be part of my liberal bias. Although at times the supporters of the move to revert to the old AP standards are sometimes comical in their description and clearly lack of understanding of the curriculum (I pleaded with my students that the curriculum should not make them want to join ISIS), I wondered about what they really seem to be objecting to, the “liberal takeover” of history education. Is education, especially higher education intrinsically liberal? Do the opponents of the curriculum want a nationalist curriculum? Or am I misunderstanding them? Is it liberal to consider how liberal my curriculum is? It can not be that simple. Maybe it is. I used this current event to discuss historiography, and the idea of revisionist history, but also the importance of looking for point of view in everything.

We started first with a list of quotes about the study of history, several from the approved documents list from the Oklahoma Bill.

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. –Harry S Truman (approved source)

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! –Patrick Henry (approved source)

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. –Alexis de Tocqueville (approved source)

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. –Thomas Jefferson (approved source)

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. –Mark Twain

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. –Maya Angelou

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. –Aldous Huxley

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. –H. G. Wells

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. –George Orwell

There is an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but it is good. –Stephen Colbert

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) “The New Colossus” [titled “Sonnet” in notebook] 1883. Manuscript poem, bound in journal. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (41)

Jacob August Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–“Five Cents a Spot”, 1889, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Then we looked at the composition of the sources on the Oklahoma bill. Many reports about the bill noted the lack of diversity in the sources (which my own quote list above probably wouldn’t stand up to either) nearly every article about the bill highlighted fact that the ten commandments made the list of 52 documents, the 4 documents by women, the single document (of surrender) by a native American, and the five documents from non-white men (non from non-white women). Of these 52 documents, only 2 are truly critical of the United States. What many articles and reports failed to note however, is that within the new curriculum framework, I taught 90% of these 52 documents, however I also taught many documents that showed an alternative “America”. For example, their summer work included a document-based question about American exceptionalism, which they wrote after reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. They read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” but they also considered a Jacob Riis photograph. As we considered the Oklahoma Bill I had the students check off which ones they knew, highlight in different colors those sources that were written by members of a minority group, and asked them to try and come up with a primary source that might contradict or challenge each of the 52 sources. It became a review lesson as well.

I was left wondering, is the critique of with the new curriculum that the conclusion many students come to after a consideration of both sources often finds America lacking? A student last year came into class a few weeks in and said, “Ms. Berry, I like this class, but I do not like America anymore.” Georgia students protesting the legislation to limit funding to the AP had an interesting take on this “anti-America” trend in AP textbooks, “As someone who is directly affected by this class every day, I must say that statement is false. Students in Gwinnett County are taught about the positive effects the United States has had on the world since we are in elementary school.” 

In trying to understand the bill, and the impulses in American society behind it, how do I avoid the liberal bias? By naming it? Is it “liberal” to name bias, even if it is reflective?

More links:


Google Scavenger Hunt: Teaching Critical Thinking?

Thomas Friedman is obsessed with fiber-optic cable. I mean, why wouldn’t he be? It is, as he notes, one of the most important shifts in how we conduct the business of this planet, and truly “flattens” the world. Online classrooms are evolving quickly in the fantastic world of the internet, some for free and offering credit to entice paying tuition down the road, some for the pure joy of decimating knowledge to the world (for ex. Yale Open Courses); however, does something get lost with the physical absence of the classroom?

Efficiency is gained with the online classroom. Only those participants that are motivated and engaged are required to be “present” and delivery of material is on an individual basis. While the amount of feedback and assessment format varies depending on the online learning platform, in many cases it is not unlike the traditional classroom of the industrial era (that we largely still mimic today). Yet, as I teacher who wants to keep my job and feel as though it is valuable there must be some intrinsic benefit that is lost?

Varied learning styles, and diverse geography does not impede the pleasures of an online classroom. Whether from an internet café in Dakar, New York or Taipei, one can participate in an online course. Students who may need more time with the material, or wish to revisit the lecture need only slide the progress bar of the YouTube to the required moment in the lesson (also the rationale behind the flipped classroom model). The worldwide web is a superhuman university librarian, aiding with supplemental resources, quick online dictionaries/encyclopedias/spark notes and a plethora of resources to help understand virtually any content. So, again, I am led to wonder why bother with the teacher?

From a job security standpoint, I do wonder about my role as a teacher with the onslaught of online courses. My role is no longer about disseminating information (as I ruminated about in an earlier post here). It is about teaching skills alongside content.  It is about teaching writing and critical thinking. Can they learn all this without me? Maybe. I assert a large role of the modern teacher is in curriculum design. It is important, as we design, to craft experiences (both physical and virtual) to allow for the development of critical thinking and student-driven (and paced) learning.

I teach a class entitled “Research Methods”. In this class, owned by the history department in our school, our objective is to use history we find compelling to teach the skills of research. The content, as a history nerd, is the fun part (we started with Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost a great read for 10th graders). As I was composing my syllabus, with the section titled “Skill Objectives” I asked myself, what do I honestly want them to leave this semester-long course being able to do?

#1 Navigate the internet to find resources

#2 Comfort to confidently assess and critique sources

#3 Integrate sources into their writing

Ok, then how do I open the class in a way that is not drier than the Sahara? We have all been to those boring librarian lectures on how to use a search engine– and this from a self-proclaimed nerd. My Solution? A Google scavenger hunt. At first I thought this would be an easy exercise for my students. I had a friend do it to test it out and she completed it in about 15 minutes, double that for the class and I believed I had a 30 min exercise. As with all of my “brilliant” ideas, this one did not quite work as efficiently as I planned…..they were very challenged by it in a wonderful and illuminating way.

I think too often in the adult world when we marvel at the internet we think about the ways we can manipulate it. Our own lens of practiced critical thinkers clouds our judgment in this case.  Then, we see the ease of young children and teenagers with touch screen-pads and their ability to find music and movies at near lightening speed and as we reminisce about the age of CD players and Walkmans, we forget this does not mean they understand how to or are able to find something of use. Critical thinking, even in a basic form is not something most kids can do easily. In the world of internet research, it took years for me to be able to narrow my search terms down enough in my school’s library catalogs (again, I went to college with the gift of the internet, I am on the cusp of that younger(er) generation.) Skimming is an art I was practiced at, not from the internet, but from trying to find some semblance of meaning in my college texts. Reading an index and a table of contents to find what I needed was a skill I had to adapt of perish into the stacks.

When and how do we learn critical thinking? Experiential learning is one fundamental way (which is partly why I think there is a current surge in this area…but again it is not new; Thoreau wanted us all to take our classes for a “walk in the woods”).  Another way is through a different type of experience—one where students are not doing a lab, or an outdoor experiential learning course, but a virtual experience.

This scavenger hunt I designed evokes my father’s old treasure hunts where one clue led to the next little piece of paper around the house. The questions build on each other. You have to find a correct answer for the previous question to quickly find the answer to the next question. The students found it quite difficult, but ultimately it got them thinking about how they can use the internet. This scavenger hunt introduced students to….

  • The need to be critical of sources…as 20/22 of my students did not question the validity of pigeonrank (the April Fool’s Joke Google played to explain how they sort their results)
  • The real usefulness of Wikipedia (the cited sources at the end)
  • Google Scholar
  • “Standing on the shoulders of giants”, the ancient quote that really defines a fundamental theory of learning
  • Google Books
  • Online Exhibits at Academic Institutions.

PS. I began drafting this post in February. As I have finally finished it as I am now thinking about how I will open the course in September… (this course started in January) I would love feedback on this hunt. If you tried it were you successful? Did you learn something new about the internet? Did it force you to think critically? How do you teach critical thinking? What is your ratio of skill/content work in class?


1. What does the term “pigeonrank” have to do with how google sorts its results?

2. How does google sort its results?

3. What is the motto of Google Scholar?

4. What is the translation of“nanos gigantum humeris insidentes”? What language is it? Who is it attributed to? What date was it first recorded? What does it mean?

5. What is the first result for “pigeonrank” in Google Scholar?

6. What is available to read from this result? (What part of the article)

7. What do you learn from what is available about “pigeonrank”?

8. Who was Al-Khwarizmi? What version of Google (Web, Image, Maps…Scholars) provides the most informative first result?

9. In the Wikipedia article for  Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (Al-Khwarizmi’s full name) what is the html for the full text of the first encyclopedia entry cited (by G J Toomer).

10. Check to see if any books by Gerald J Toomer are available on Google Books.

11. Who did Gerald J. Toomer publish a biography about in 2009 from the Oxford University Press?

12. Provide a picture of the subject of Toomer’s 2009 biography.

13. Why would the Tarlton Law Library potentially have been useful to Gerald J. Toomer?

14. What would Gerald J. Toomer have seen in the atrium near the entrance if he visited Tarlton Library?