OPINION: One reporter explains why history classes need to change

When I was about seven years old, I found a U.S. history textbook lying on an empty shelf in a dollar store. I liked the shiny eagle on the cover, so I begged my mom to buy it. This was back when my attention span was short, I hated reading, and I really had no other reason to want a book besides the fact it looked nice. Nonetheless, the book lay neglected on my desk for several weeks until one day I summoned the curiosity to open it up. After that, my perception of history was never quite the same.

Inside, I found a personal escape. I would spend hours on end thumbing through the pages, reading everything from Columbus to the Vietnam War. I read the book from cover to cover, taking note of every picture, graphic and personal account. And once I had finished, I reread it again. And again. And again. I just could not get enough of it.

Though I loved history as a child, high school social studies killed my inner-historian. As a kid, I read everything, but honed in on the topics that interested me. Now, it is required to know events A, B and C. And not only that, but also know how B and C are connected, how A contributed to B, and how C led to A. There is no humanity, no relevance, and no room for curiosity. Indeed, the only skills being sharpened in the classroom are memorization and fact-regurgitation. As Ohio social studies teacher Greg Milo puts it, “We attach names to eras and titles to chapters, and we stick it in a book, and we call it history.”

Milo is the author of “Rebooting Social Studies: Strategies for Reimagining History Classes.” As the title suggests, he is taking part in a movement among teachers to breathe new life into history curriculums. And the first step: tackling the “boringness” of it all.

History curriculums lack substance, just how an interesting story might lack a competent storyteller. They fail to capture a student’s attention. They fail to supply meaningful lessons on societal issues of today. They provide activities and assignments that are hollow and lack practical applications.  So what, if the Union won the Battle of Gettysburg? So what, if the Treaty of Versailles ended World War 1? Students study these events and brush past the interesting bits, never fully experiencing the best of each story.

To illustrate this point, Milo offers a clever analogy: What would the movie Star Wars: A New Hope look like if it was summarized on paper in a textbook-like fashion? The practical reality of this, as Milo writes, is that if the plotline of Star Wars was simplified in any way, shape, or form, it would just not be the same. We would not have epic space combat. We would not have thrilling lightsaber duels. And we most certainly would not have Star Wars sequels, action figures or pajamas.

What we would have, theoretically, is a dull textbook entry with no “specific players”, no “personal stories”, and not much substance. One could also go on to argue that we would not have Mark Hamill playing a young Luke Skywalker — which would be pretty disappointing in itself.

“We love stories that pull us in, stories that don’t gloss over the excitement,” Milo writes in his book. “We are drawn to stories that make us a part of it. That highlight the humanity. That require us to struggle with themes that we can relate to, like right and wrong or good and bad.”

Ideally, all teachers would want to tell stories that keep students interested. But history curriculums do not always allow that. Certain topics must be covered chronologically in a short amount of time. One does not simply learn about the European Renaissance without covering the European Middle Ages first.

This means the “nitty gritty” of history — the small details that spark curiosity — are often glossed over. This explains why most adults claim they hated history as kids but learn to love it later in life: When young, they were force-fed by their teachers, but once they grew older and gained more freedom, they were able to study whatever they wanted.

So what can be done about the curriculum? Is history an inherently boring subject? Not necessarily. In fact, there are certain implementations that could be done right now.

The Choices Program offers in-depth curriculum that challenges students to play an active role in lessons. Rather than mindlessly spitting out facts, students learn to take a stance on important societal issues and justify with logical reasoning. While a typical history class would ask its ill-prepared students to debate on something vague (for instance, the immigration situation in the U.S), Choices takes it a step further by equipping students with the knowledge they need for active discussion, decision making, and problem solving. A student enrolled in Choices would have access to a wide variety of supplementary materials: maps, videos, graphs, images, etc. Moreover, the lessons are highly adaptive, making it relatively easy to cover the standards.

In addition to Choices, teachers should also find ways to harness the intrinsic motivation of students. Whatever the students decide to research does not matter; it is the physical interaction they get out of it that counts. For instance, students should participate in information campaigns in which they work in teams, produce posters, and ultimately present their findings in front of an assembly.

While these are all valid points, they are only the tip of the iceberg. The history curriculum as a whole is in desperate need of reform. If social studies really seeks to create “active, participating citizens”, emphasis must be placed more on the “social” and less on the bookwork. Curriculum must also have meaning. If there is no real life application, students will continue to ask, “What’s the point?” or “How does this relate to me?”.

Above all else, history must be interactive and meaningful. Perhaps if done this way, we could learn from our mistakes rather than repeating them. We could be historians rather than fact-regurgitators. We could be politicians rather than sticklers for the rules.

There is so much a student can learn from history, and to teach it in the wrong ways would essentially be putting a cap on their curiosity.