A substantial number of students come to my history classes telling me they are not good with history. There is always a sense of nervousness. If they could avoid taking the classes, they would gladly do but they have to because these are prerequisites for graduation. I often ask them, why do you think you are not good in history? Responses are often similar: ‘I am not good with dates’ or ‘I cannot memorize.’ This idea of what history is has been formed during their high school years. My own high school history teacher had recommended I study history because I was good with names and dates.
So, lets step back and ask a few questions! What is history? How do we do history? What may we learn from history? The answers to these questions may seem so obvious, but perhaps they are not. To my nervous students, I always assure them that they do not have to memorize any dates, names, events, etc. in my classes. That usually gives them some relief and prepares them to journey with me on this exploration of the past. I call it exploration because we do not have definitive answers. History is not simply a recalling of facts from the past. It is more than that. It is complex. We may stumble upon a piece of document that challenges or questions the prevailing narrative. So, in understanding what history is, we have to learn to ask questions of the past. Querying the past not in ways that would reveal canned answers as a google search bot may. Perhaps, questions that are more complex and nuanced. Such questions allow you to dig deeper. For example, in a class on British Colonial Rule in Nigeria, I am not going to simply ask if the Irish missionaries in Nigeria and the British colonial officials got along? I rather may ask, ‘to what extent did the Irish missionaries in Nigeria collaborated or resisted the British colonial officials in Nigeria?” We probe such complex questions as we look at each of the major events throughout the semester.
How do we find answers to these complex questions? The answers lie in the way we do history. Often, students are provided with textbooks that they are required to read throughout the semester. Answers that textbooks provide are as ‘good’ as those google search may return. Perhaps a bit of exaggeration here! Textbooks ‘might’ be better. It is almost impossible for textbooks to capture the complexity of events. They offer an interpreted historical narrative. Given that history is complex, why not let the students be engaged in the act of doing history so that they can fully appreciate these complexities? Thus, it is important to expose them to the primary sources. Care has to be taken on the selection of sources so that these do not reflect a biased historical narrative.
Why go through the trouble of studying the past if it does not have anything to teach us? The past must always be connected to the present. What lessons can we learn from the past to help our present? This aspect has to be explored as different events are being taught. Let the students come up with ‘lessons learned!’ This makes the past relevant and enables them to see value in what they learn.