History is full of facts, events and details that can seem overwhelming at times. To help students retain the information, it is important to help them establish connections between those events and the larger picture. Students should work to establish these connections in their class lectures and reading assignments. They can also do so by watching movies that portray historical events, such as Schindler’s List or The Boy in Striped Pajamas. Alternatively, they can read historical novels such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or Vera Britain’s Testament of Youth. Finally, they can read biographies of people who lived during the time being studied. This is a great way to experience the past through the eyes of those who were there, and it can be a very moving experience for students.
Historical knowledge depends on a study of the relics and traces of the past – what historians call primary sources – that is, sources that came into existence in the period being studied. These sources, in turn, provide the raw material from which historians draw when they write their books and articles. Historians’ technical skills lie in converting the raw material into history.
It is important to help students understand that the very process of constructing a historical account of an event involves choices and selections. Ultimately, the history that is written will reflect the values and interests of the historian who constructs it. This inherent selectivity does not undermine the objectivity or veridicality of history. It merely demonstrates that historical knowledge is not, in the end, like mathematics or physics.
A good way to help students grasp these issues is by using eyewitness accounts – letters from the Civil War front lines, for example, or a letter written to Congressmen expressing concern about women’s rights. Through these sources, students encounter two essential facts about the study of history: that all record-keeping reflects the point of view of those who create it and that disagreements among historians are not that different from disagreements between students as they interpret primary sources.
In addition to these conceptualizations and factual descriptions, a student of history develops his ability to interpret the social and natural causes of historical change. This requires an understanding of the nature of social structures and systems, as well as an appreciation for the way they interact with each other to produce changes in the world. This can be done on a small scale – for example, an analysis of a particular region in China — or on a global basis – the writings of G. William Skinner and others in macro-regional studies of China.
Developing a grasp of these concepts will enable your students to be better prepared for all the academic subjects they will face in life. It will also give them a richer, more fulfilling learning experience in history. By studying the lives of men and women from all over the globe and gaining an understanding of the interconnectedness of human events, your students will be better able to see their place in the world around them.