Today in History: Do Not Do It
Websites offering lists of “Today in History” abound. I have several books in my library that provide such lists. I understand the impulse to go to these sites and books. They give (to geeks such as myself ) the feeling that history is exciting with a rush of now. After all it happened TODAY (except 183 years ago, so thrilling).
I know that history can be confusing and/or boring. I am married to someone that reminds me of this fact on a regular basis. It would be impossible to be a high school history teacher without knowing that most students dread the prospect of studying my subject areas: history, economics, and government.
I happen to find history, economics, and government exciting. I get giddy at the prospect of teaching cost-benefit analysis. Teaching about the role of technology in World War One makes me ecstatic.
However, this is what is wrong with these lists, history is about context and narrative. History is not about a table of facts. History without context is trivia. Without the coherent thread of context, these tables of facts are not worthy of our time in a history class. I contend that such trivia is the enemy of learning history.
Telling students that it was today in 1829 that Scotland Yard was created out of the former London police department…and now we go back to the causes for the South seceding from the United States. This creates a sort of cognitive whiplash and they become bored. So next time you are tempted to pull out the old trivia books, stop, and tell a joke instead.
Now, when they stop laughing (we hope at the joke) start building some historical context.