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“Learn More, See More”

Close-up of a blue human eye

Teaching our students to “see” our field is an essential aspect of what we do.  While I had a student recently express frustration with my midterm that tests for methodology as much as content–and, what would he need that for when this is a 101 class and he’s a computer science major–the simple fact is we want our students to see more of the world around them, not less.

History has a humanizing quality about it, but one cannot access that facet of the field unless one has an understanding of how history works.  Engaging humanity through another culture, even if it is a root for our own–especially if it is a root for our own–forces students to effectively open a dialogue with the people who came before.  But, that is impossible if we pretend to be the man behind the curtain and provide our students with a sterilized “history” that has already “answered” all the questions for the students.  Rather if we open the discipline up to students and encourage them to attempt formulating their own interpretations and engage directly with those of scholars, then we will expand their vision.

Perhaps, I should explain what I mean by “expand their vision” so it is not some empty platitude.  Neurologist Richard Restak explains that the eye does not operate as a camera lens, taking snapshots of “the world out there.”  Instead, it sees according to the knowledge of the scene already possessed, hence his expression which I borrowed for my title, “learn more, see more.”  If I, for example, brought a sailor, a marine biologist, an American historian, and a local businesswoman out to the point where Fort McHenry sits in Baltimore, each of their minds would seize on different aspects available in the scene, would be drawn to different subjects:

  • The sailor would likely notice the tides, the shipping lanes, and perhaps scan the port visible across the water;
  • The marine biologist would plausibly look for algae blooms, scan the fauna along the shore, notice the sea birds or other animals that the others might miss, and see the unwanted debris floating in the Bay;
  • The American historian would probably focus more on the Fort itself and scan the horizon for the landmarks during the War of 1812 or the Civil War, looking for the neighborhoods that were occupied or were battle zones;
  • The local businesswoman would doubtless take in the new developments in the surrounding neighborhoods visible from the point or, depending on what her business is, direct her attention to the port and its activities, BUT…

If she is a local, born-and-raised Baltimorean, she may well see many of the same things as her counterparts:

  •  Boating is such a big part of local Bay culture that she may be an enthusiast, herself, or have friends and family who are thereby having picked up something of their knowledge;
  • One cannot live on the Bay without being acquainted with the local animals and fauna, nor without being aware of the decline in its health and efforts to improve it, frequently hearing in the news, local radio, and PSAs about its conditions and what threatens it most;
  • The history of Fort McHenry is well known to locals who are proud of its place in American history and as the site where the star-spangled banner waved in the wind, inspiring Francis Scott Keys, held on a British man-of-war in the Bay, to pen the poem that became our national anthem.

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The more we can add to what our students and our children see, the more rich and nuanced the world they live in becomes–the more alive!  When a person can scan the horizon and see in his or her line of sight a teeming vision of the community around him or her (whether it is a positive and pleasant sight or one that insights frustration or anger), boredom and disinterest remain distant.  Citizens are thus engaged in their community and in the world in which they live.  As a result, they can share more with all of us.

This same argument applies to the skills the field requires, not merely the content.  Seeing is a verb with many meanings.  One can see the scene in front of him or her and one can see patterns in verbal communication (which can later impact how one sees the scene).  We are a culture inundated with verbal communication: ads, news, social media, entertainment, etc.  It is crucial that we learn to digest that material effectively and critically.  It is also expected that as citizens we are prepared to engage in the dialogue, but for that to be useful the output has to be intelligible and preferably intelligent, even if contrary.

Historians have to read critically, recognizing what questions a source answers (even if that question was not already in their head when they sat down to read the source!) and which questions still need to be answered–this active reading and developed curiosity leads to interesting and productive explorations.  It also fuels useful discussion.

It is further incumbent on historians to interpret what happened in the past given the available sources and make an argument defending that interpretation.  This argument requires developing verbal skills in both written and oral communication.  This in turn should improve ones recognition of the patterns of argumentation one encounters.  (Please note, however, that this is precisely what textbooks and most documentaries do not do!  Rather, these forums provide the interpretation as fact–a squirrely thing in the field of history–not as a single interpretation that has been developed through one’s research into past sources, which are themselves often interpretations of an event and thus subject to critical reading, analysis, and interpretation.)

If we can help students to see these things in what they read and write we are training them to be successful whether they are stay-at-home moms or dads, computer science professionals, local businessmen and women, or historians.  It trains them to see information with a critical eye and ask the right questions, recognize answers, and intelligently navigate arguments.

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