Day 10: The Importance of Chronology

“That history is, in fact, a story seems to have been lost on many. Instead, we are served with ‘thematic’ studies, in which various cultures and civilizations are compared on the basis of social values, almost irrespective of dates and historical context.”
Wisdom and Eloquence, p. 100.

Teach history in chronological order. To some of you, this seems as obvious as can be. Why would it be done in any other way? Unfortunately, thematic rather than chronological history is become extremely common in American classrooms. Read this article for teachers “Themes vs. Timelines.” The author suggests that thematic teaching will help students to make connections in the way that Common Core and new tests require. She suggests the following themes for American History:

  1. Foundations and ideologies of the United States
  2. Westward expansion
  3. Industrialization and its effects
  4. War
  5. The African American experience
  6. Decades & cultures

She also suggests themes for World History. Check out the article to get a better idea of what she is suggesting.

Give learners a handout with the word ‘war’ in the middle. From this, have them branch out everything they think of when hearing the word ‘war’. They will probably note ideas such as fighting, blood, death, power, weapons, struggle, winners, losers, etc.

After covering the themes of “War” in general, you would now go over individual wars in that light and cover the details of those wars. According to her thematic list, perhaps you would cover the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all together at this time. After that, you would talk about the African American experience, civil rights, etc. Then you would cover decades and cultures. I would assume that as you covered the decades of the 20th century, you would go back and overlap by now studying the Great Depression, FDR, & the New Deal, then study the 1960s and the hippie movements, etc.

I would argue that studying the wars all together as a thematic movement certainly could help students to make connections between wars. However, these are forced connections. Students will better remember and appreciate connections that they make on their own. Additionally, when you study “War” as a topic and force the connections, you are much, much more vulnerable to introducing your own teacher bias for or against war in general. You might end up focusing on the sadness of war and the negative effects it can have and cause students to make blanket judgements against all wars. If students understood the events that happened in between each war they would be better able to understand the reasons our country decided to enter the war and make their own judgements. Students might decide that war is bad on the whole, but that there are reasons that merit some wars and each war must be considered in its own light.

The standards published by the National Council for Social Studies suggest the following organizing themes:

  1. Culture
  2. Time, Continuity, and Change
  3. People, Places, and Environments
  4. Individual Development and Identity
  5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  6. Power, Authority, and Governance
  7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
  8. Science, Technology, and Society
  9. Global Connections
  10. Civic Ideals and Practices

They suggest that you can do some chronological study that is aligned with these principles, but I would argue that it is difficult to maintain chronology while aligning with these. Civic competence is the goal of a social studies education, according to the NCSS. As they describe it,

Young people who are knowledgeable, skillful, and committed to democracy are necessary to sustaining and improving our democratic way of life, and participating as members of a global community. The civic mission of social studies demands the inclusion of all students—addressing cultural, linguistic, and learning diversity that includes similarities and differences based on race, ethnicity, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, exceptional learning needs, and other educationally and personally significant characteristics of learners. Diversity among learners embodies the democratic goal of embracing pluralism to make social studies classrooms laboratories of democracy. NCSS

Again, the goals here are to produce students who learn problem solving and are active citizens (both good things) who work towards an end goal that here is rather liberal. Whatever you think of these goals, they assume students need direct training in issues, current events, and the embracement of pluralism. They assume that students will not learn this if presented with history as one large story (narrative). I would argue that students who study as a narrative will in fact have a strong grasp of current issues and will be able to analyze those issues for themselves. Directly teaching issues at the expense of teaching history is spoon feeding instead of growing minds, and it is subject to much more bias.

The idea that there is no truth at all and that knowledge is ever changing for the better and we need to criticize the past rather than identify with it, is an idea mixed up with all kinds of progressive and postmodern worldviews. In this view, people of the past were barbarians and today we are on a path to a better world.

American history, according to Deconstructionist educators, must be seen as genocide (the systematic elimination of Native Americans), environmental depredation (mass killing of buffalo and deforestation), misogyny (denial of women’s rights) and male dominance, and capitalist greed (banking, investment, and private development)….The only real history is the progress of women, blacks, gays, and ethnic minorities. Ron Parlato

Instead, what a brighter prospect this is:

Teaching history as a narrative, that is, through a chronological, cause and effect methodology with an idea of placing the student’s imagination inside the story is the most effective way to teach history.  When a narrative can be constructed, the context of historical characters’ actions, or the broader context of historical developments, can help the reader to keep events in chronological order, while understanding the broader context of the story. This encourages the student to think beyond just the single narrative and to delve deeper into what may motivate not only the characters, but the author of the narrative itself. Alvin Smith

Of course, when you teach with one narrative, you can introduce bias in how you tell that narrative. Textbooks may use one single narrative and are guaranteed to have a bias in that narrative. It is impossible to write history without a bias. The beauty of using many different books instead of just textbooks is that it allows students to read several perspectives and discuss them with you, the teacher. Students will learn to recognize the bias in each book more than they would if they read a textbook that claims to be inerrant.

Giving students an understanding of the whole of history and not just the handful of choice themes and issues we want them to form our opinions on, is giving them a gift. It is allowing them the opportunity to truly understand the hows and whys of events and carefully analyze them. Giving them that gift of knowledge and the tools to analyze that knowledge is to open their minds. Spoon feeding students themes and issues is to close their minds.

Next post: How to Know What to Cover
Day One: Index

31 Days of Teaching Homeschool History: The Importance of Chronology