This new blog is designed to be a resource and discussion forum for teaching history. I recently read Paul Johnson’s biography of Socrates and it made me think of teaching and why I love it. It isn’t Clio or Herodotus or Thucydides who serves as my muse for teaching history, it is the great Athenian philosopher. Granted, we don’t know much about the man and we know nothing from his own hand. But what his contemporaries tell us of him is of a life to admired for all educators.
Unlike the Sophists who professed in search of money, Socrates questioned in search of ideas. We are told that this son of a stone mason often walked the streets of Athens barefoot and in near tatters as the Parthenon began its construction. He talked to everyone from the political elite to people tending their fields to artisans and shopkeepers. When young men did gather around him he asked them questions rather than answering the students’ questions directly. He taught them how to think, to observe, to come to logical conclusions.
When I was a young undergraduate I was fortunate enough to have mentors who shared the Socratic approach. Yes, of course, large classes necessitate the clear, straightforward transmission of information via lecture and similar methods, especially in history courses in which the concrete is more apparent in most cases than in philosophy. But Socrates’ approach to philosophy offers much to history educators, too. The who, what, when, and where of history is rarely a subject of furious debate. But the much more interesting questions of how and why are the fun, interpretive parts of this great subject we teach. Leading students through the complexity of causation in particular can be rewarding when approached like Socrates. Even where there is not a great historiographical debate, questioning students from one point to the next, helping them to see and to formulate logical answers, testing preconceived notions, and playing devil’s advocate against consensus opinions all teach students to think more deeply and broadly, follow their ideas to a conclusion, and harness evidence for support rather than offering flaccid opinions.
But of course this is only one approach to teaching. Our approaches need to vary depending on the material, the number and quality of students in a course, and numerous other variables.
So what will this blog be about. Initially it will focus on Russian history, but the coverage may expand in the future. My hope is that college and university professors and high school teachers will benefit from the issues raised here. In most cases I will introduce a particular topic and invite specialists to discuss how they approach teaching the topic, what texts can be used, and how we can best integrate various media into our classrooms. There is a great deal of innovation in history education, and I hope that this blog will become a forum to discuss tried and true traditional methods as well as more innovative approaches.
So let the conversation begin! Please comment and offer your own insights. Learning and teaching are interactive, and this blog is not intended to provide THE BEST approach, but rather to offer up suggestions on which the larger teaching community can expand. If you have suggestions for future topics of discussion, please contact me.