Flipping the History class with the Paradox of History
I suppose that at one point or another we historians consider why we do what we do. It is pretty obvious that we are not in this profession for the money or a desire to become household names. Few of us are wealthy and even fewer are recognizable outside of our profession. The simple truth is we love history. We have a passion for our craft that borders on fanaticism at times. You know you have a love of history when you watch this video and it moves you.
Sam Wineburg in his book Historical Thinking says,
“For the narcissist sees the world-both the past and the present-in his own image. Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology—humility in the fact of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.”
Historians really understand that through our study of history we realize just how important each of us as people are to the grand scheme of things while at the same time realizing just how insignificant we are. This is a paradox which cannot be resolved. Studying how things in the past came about is frustrating because we will never have a complete picture of the past which is why we keep searching for more information and more interpretations. Why did something happen? The more we explore the past the more we realize how important the actions of multiple people were to it happening as it did. John Lewis Gaddis says, “History “dethrones” us from our original position at the center of the universe. It requires us to see ourselves as part of a much larger human story. When we view the world this way, we come face-to-face with our own smallness, our own insignificance.”
He is right. We have to place events in a larger narrative for them to be understood. You have to have a love of history to truly appreciate the complexity of it. As some of you know, I love the bottom up approach to history. It is one way of studying the history of an event, but I also believe that it must be placed within the larger context of an event as well in order to construct what I call the grand narrative. One could consider this to be a philosophical approach to history. I share Howard Zinn’s enthusiasm for this approach, but I also recognize that it is but one approach in the study of history and must be used in conjunction with others. Still, Howard Zinn was right in advocating the exploration of what he called the People’s History.
He was not the only one to advocate this approach either. Others did before him and after him, but Zinn was the one who struck the resonant chord in a large body of people concerning this approach. He also said something which I think sums up why history is so important. “If people could see that change comes about as a result of millions of tiny acts that seem totally insignificant, well then they wouldn’t hesitate to take those tiny acts.” He understood the paradox of history.
I love history, but I love teaching it even more. This is where my abilities shine the brightest. I am in the process of flipping the classroom around which is a major undertaking. This is literally a quantum shift in using a pedagogical model and technology to construct a learning-centered classroom that caters to the strengths and weaknesses of our students in a community college. I feel the bottom up approach to history fits into this classroom via the introduction of the paradox to students. Often teachers lament that their students feel no connection to history. Why should they if they have no connection to the past? They need to understand what the paradox of history is in order to understand what their connection to history is and how they fit into the grand narrative. As I rebuild my classroom to fit the flipped model, I keep coming back to the beginning of the course where students learn what we will be doing in the semester.
With that in mind, I am now rebuilding the beginning section of the course to be a training exercise in which they learn what we will be doing, how we will be doing it, and why. Learning how to use their iPads, navigate the various websites I employ along with the eCompanion site, and how to incorporate the technology such as mobile applications, wikis, Office 365, the school library, and Films on Demand will be part of this new strategy. Collaborative learning will be a major feature of this model as well. My What is History? lesson plan is being altered to introduce those elements and will feature the paradox of history prominently. It is going to be an interesting summer semester!