Not Seeing the War For the Battles

The following is a portion of a letter to the editor that appeared in the June 15, 2009 NY Times. It addresses purported changes in the ways history is taught, but it is rooted in a larger perspective I have encountered many times and I bring it to our blog as a springboard to raise a few underlying pedagogical questions.

“During the 1980s, I taught United States history to American soldiers stationed in South Korea. In one fairly typical class, not one of the students had heard of the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps their high school teachers considered the subject a mere matter of military history. But most of the people who fought and died at Gettysburg were ordinary Americans, and our lives would be very different now if the ones wearing blue had stayed home.”

A number of assumptions here are worth questioning. What first leaps out at me is the notion that if students seem not to recognize a topic, or don’t respond to questions about it, it is ipso facto clear that they don’t know anything about it and that they weren’t taught about the subject. I’m really quite flummoxed by these assumptions.

Students refrain from expressing familiarity with a topic for a great many reasons. In addition to the straightforward proposition that they indeed don’t know anything about it, there are oh so many other possibilities. It may be because they’re shy about participating in discussions; because they don’t remember clearly what they were taught; because they’re uncertain about how what they recall will be received by the instructor or fellow students; because there’s tension between what they learned and what they believe; or because of any other of a host of social and/or interpersonal dynamics in the classroom. To conclude that students don’t know about something simply because they don’t readily respond to questions about it is to misunderstand the social milieu of one’s own classroom.

It equally the case that students often don’t recall what they’ve learned until a context for the topic is fleshed out. As the subject is discussed and elaborated upon, gradual recognition and recollection may bring it slowly back to mind.

Students, of course, do forget much they’ve been taught. It’s unlikely that most students could recapitulate everything that’s been covered in a single class period, let alone an entire semester. The fact that students claim not to recall something is a very poor guide to whether they’ve ever been taught it.

The Battle of Gettysburg is remembered primarily because of the speech President Lincoln made to consecrate the memorial there. Without downplaying its size and significance, I nevertheless point out that it was only one battle out of many fought during the Civil War, and that ordinary Americans fought in them all. It strikes me as odd that knowledge about a single battle would be used as evidence of ignorance about the meaning of an entire war.

Finally, my own operating principle is that if students don’t know (or remember) something that I think is important, it’s my job to figure out how to teach it to them in such a way that they will remember it, rather than rail at them for not knowing it.

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3 Responses to Not Seeing the War For the Battles

  1. Matthew A. Edwards says:

    I am in agreement with much of what is written here. I think that it is especially important to emphasize, as Prof. Petersen does, that students’ failure to recall immediately details of various historical matters or are unwilling to share their understanding in class does not mean either (1) that they were never taught the material; or (2) that they lack all knowledge of the events being discussed.

    Furthermore, I agree that lack of knowledge of a specific event, no matter how significant to faculty members, does not mean that the student lacks all understanding of the social, cultural and political issues that the event represents.

    That being said, I believe that there is a fundamental difference between how a professor handles these matters in the classroom (i.e., what is pedagogically sound) and how a professor discusses these matters with his colleagues. Just because someone bemoans the alleged ignorance of his students in the classroom on certain matters, does not mean that the professor treats the students with disdain or a lack of respect. (Though, arguably, disdain towards students in any context is unacceptable.) Also, frustration with students’ lack of knowledge of certain matters does not connote, necessarily, disdain for the students themselves. One can be frustrated that students lack understanding of certain political and historical matters without bearing any ill will for the students themselves.

  2. Arthur Lewin says:

    By the way, the disdain in the quote seems directed at the teachers the students had in high school not at the students themselves.
    “Perhaps their high school teachers considered the subject a mere matter of military history.”

    Also, many years ago there was a shift in the schools away from the specifics of actual battles to more emphasis on how the wars themselves were connected to the flow of history.

  3. glennpetersen says:

    Well, this may fall under the rubric of parsing things too finely, but I’m having a bit of trouble coming to grips with Matt’s notion that “there is a fundamental difference between how a professor handles these matters in the classroom (i.e., what is pedagogically sound) and how a professor discusses these matters with his colleagues.” As we go about our days we slip into and out of a multitude of roles, and as we do we take on and cast off a range of mindsets and patterns of behavior. And so we use a variety of what linguists call “registers,” that is, ways of speaking for specific purposes or in a particular social settings. We speak differently in our office spaces than we do in the classroom. I suppose most of us are complex enough to be able at times to speak dismissively of students without actually being dismissive of them—there’s a sort of curmudgeonliness we come to recognize and tolerate, a sharp tongue camouflaging a vulnerable heart of gold within. I wouldn’t want to challenge anyone’s right to play this role. Nevertheless….

    One of my primary tasks as a department chair, and I often think it’s the most important responsibility I’m charged with, is to promote within our department an atmosphere that enhances the possibilities for learning. At any given time our department has at least a dozen or so individuals new to teaching: GTFs, adjuncts, and junior full-timers. The department as a whole is charged with helping them develop them as teachers. Most new faculty care a great deal about what they’re doing, and pay close attention to the environment and culture around them. For the most part, though, they’re in no position to distinguish clearly between ironic chatter among senior colleagues that good-naturedly disparages our students and mean-spirited spewing of bile that frankly disparages our students. Yes, these may seem like quite distinct registers to us, but the distinctions are rarely obvious to novices. Junior faculty who are exposed to regular disquisitions on the failures of our students, their unworthiness, their lack of commitment and preparation, etc., are more likely to absorb such attitudes toward students themselves.

    I’m hardly suggesting that we shouldn’t vent frustrations with particular students or class periods we’ve just taught. But there’s a difference between giving voice to a frustration and creating a general aura of disdain. I would of course defend anyone’s right to feel however they feel about students, and to express themselves, but this doesn’t keep me from believing that it’s my responsibility to work at fostering a general sense of respect and appreciation for our students. There’s a contradiction here, I know, but then they’re everywhere, aren’t they?

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