We cannot teach everything.
I learned this during a world history graduate seminar years ago. I hadn’t thought about the challenges of teaching world history until then, but there it was, staring us all down: what do you teach when you can’t teach everything? How do you decide what stays and what goes?
How do you shape the narrative?
For two years in the 1960s and briefly again in the 1990s, television audiences tuned in weekly to The Outer Limits, a sci-fi show often put in the same category as The Twilight Zone. The intro went like this:
There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to – The Outer Limits.
I like to believe most history teachers don’t approach content curation with the same ominous intent as The Outer Limits. Some teachers have more choice than others: in a public school, textbook choice, school boards, mandated standards, and other factors also shape the narrative. On a day-to-day basis, within that framework or any other, though, teachers make decisions of what stays and what goes.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question. For example, it’s been nearly a year since I saw Hamilton in NYC and that show offers the go-to line I like to get students to think about: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That may be the more user-friendly version, although even Eliza arguably doesn’t get the treatment she warrants in that show.
This fall, I’ve been thinking about how we decide what to teach, particularly in an independent school where we have more flexibility. I’ve had conversations with colleagues about whether there are certain things students must know – and if so, what those things are. I’ve thought a lot about the question of relevance: how to engage students in history so they want to keep investigating. It’s an ongoing conversation, and I’m not sure there are any concrete answers. I’m not even convinced the answers stay the same year after year.
There are just so many possibilities for any given topic.
This week, my sophomores began learning about the fight for Indian independence in the 20th century. I jokingly referred to today as “Gandhi Day,” a day when they learn about Gandhi’s early organizing efforts in South Africa and read two documents with his perspective on using nonviolence and the need for Indian independence.
Last year, someone pointed out that Gandhi is just one of many activists – he’s certainly not alone in the story of Indian nationalism. It’s an important point. It made me begin to see how limited our textbook was, and offered another reminder of my own limitations as a teacher. Indian nationalism is one of the things I love teaching, but it’s also a topic I never even understood in graduate school – I’m only now beginning to scratch the surface.
This year, I was the only one protesting the exclusion of other nationalists from our texts. I told them they were getting a selective narrative.
I should own it more often.
Are there things we must teach students? There are so many possible ways to answer that. How would you?