Imagination and History

Make learning history engaging for students

By Karen Walker

As a student, I hated history. For me, social studies class (as it was then, and is still, often called) was flat, dull, two-dimensional. It was a jumbled memorization of dates and events, facts and figures; a timeline without connection or purpose or relevance — at least none that I could see. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault. I remember liking some of my history teachers. But that didn’t make any difference.

I was a top student, yet social studies was so dull and disconnected for me that I could easily mix up dates on a test (1942 instead of 1492) and not even recognize it later. I struggled to correctly retain “famous” (or infamous) names associated with events, or to recall which event preceded another … and I never had a clue why any of it mattered. It was like puzzle pieces without matching edges — a lot of pieces.

My teachers never suspected this inner struggle. There was no outward evidence of it. No declining grades to indicate something was not getting through. And who would notice my glazed-over eyes in class?

Curiously, the only things I effortlessly retained from years of social studies classes were the following, which is useful to note for later in this article:

  • The California missions (studied in fourth grade and involving family trips to missions to help with assigned reports);
  • A vague appreciation for the state of Kansas and the country of Brazil, thanks to two research assignments;
  • A clear, almost vivid understanding of the feudal system and the critical role Benedictine monks played in education during that time (especially curious since I attended public school at this point);
  • Highlights of our nation’s founding — the Boston Tea Party, “taxation without representation,” the ride of Paul Revere and the Minutemen, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution … and 1776;
  • Random events that happened to have occurred on the same date as my birthdate — the day Lincoln was shot, the day the Titanic sunk, the day before taxes; and
  • That’s it.

Sadly, I know I’m not alone in this experience. Many students today are in the same boat, quietly enduring social studies.

But there’s good news.

Looking back, it’s clear to see — and to correct — what was missing from my social studies classes.

The wonderful truth is that teaching history can be an incredibly rewarding experience for students of all ages. It can and does change and inspire young lives for the good, far into adulthood.

Here’s how to make teaching history a memorable experience (in a good way) for teacher and student.

Is it social studies or history?

According to Michael Van Hecke, a seasoned Catholic educator and principal and the founder of a history textbook publishing company, it is critical to first understand the distinction between social studies and history.

Merriam-Webster defines social studies as “a part of a school or college curriculum concerned with the study of social relationships and the functioning of society.”

The same dictionary defines history as: “1) tale, story; 2) a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution), often including an explanation of their causes; 3) a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events.”

Formally speaking, social studies merely presents the social interactions and cultures of different groups of people. The presentation may be of one specific time in history, one specific region, or evolving social interactions and cultures over a specific time period. Such a study reveals facts and figures, names, locations, even dates — but little else.

Social studies doesn’t explain or judge the facts it presents. It does not answer “why” questions that students have when they look at a bunch of facts.

An example of social studies would be a unit on what Japanese culture looked like in the 1800s — the typical clothes, food, industry, attitude toward war and other cultures, and customs of that time period.

On the other hand, a study of history reveals the reasonings and consequences of human choice — over time, in specific locations, and under specific circumstances. It naturally engages the learner in evaluating whether or not these reasonings were faulty or prudent, and whether or not the ensuing consequences over time were good or bad, predictable or random.

As you can see, the study of history engages and exercises the imagination and thinking mind of a learner in a way social studies does not.

“Social studies is an important part of — and belongs within — the study of history,” says Van Hecke, “but it’s not the whole package by a long shot. Even more importantly, the study of social studies solely, without an integrated study of history, can stunt a student’s understanding of genuine history, of what really happened in the past, of cause and effect, of human nature, virtue, vice, and of his or her place in today’s world. It’s akin to a black-and-white snapshot rather than a four-color video; a snapshot vs. a full arc in time that has a beginning, middle, and end.”

Engaging the imagination

Remember the short list of things I effortlessly remembered after years of social studies? A quick glance back at the list indicates that each of these items involved engagement of the mind and imagination — through a field trip, a story, researching and writing a story assignment, even being able to ask and get answers to “why” questions. (For example, why did the missionaries do this or that? Why did they plant such and such, have this many cattle, or space out the missions at these intervals? What attracted the native Indians to the missions? What were the hardships and challenges?)

In seventh-grade world history, my teacher showed seemingly endless movies on the feudal system, how it was structured, what life and trade was like at the time, and how the monks lived on remote hills yet educated Europe. I thought of it as an easy class on the days we saw movies, and yet I must have been caught up in the story told in these movies because this is the section of history I vividly remember.

Story engages the imagination.

As we all know when we’re telling a friend the history of what happened to us yesterday, history involves story.

There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s an arc. There’s a why. There are good and bad consequences.

Story and imagination, not fable and make-believe

To be clear, engaging the imagination in teaching history does not mean conjuring up fictional dragons and mermaids.

Yes, the same mental faculty is used in both cases — namely the imagination — but the subject matter is radically different.

History is only concerned with what actually happened in the past and why. It involves real people doing real things, with real consequences. When the imagination is engaged in teaching history, it paints the world surrounding the human actions of the past, sets them in motion for us, so to speak, and brings them to life.

With the imagination engaged, students can begin to see the story of history. And the benefits of engaging the imagination in teaching history extend far beyond history class.

Engaging the imagination is similar to working out at the gym. The gym workouts strengthen our physical muscles to lift heavier weights, enabling some of us to lift heavy objects such as chairs, tables, even file cabinets with increasing ease.

Likewise, engaging a student’s imagination in history ultimately strengthens the ability of his or her imagination to possibly discover in the future a new breakthrough cure for cancer, a tech solution no one considered before, or a new avenue to guide a hardened prisoner to embrace forgiveness and hope. And in each of these examples, of course, a student well-versed in the lessons of history will likely act on any new discovery with the type of courage, prudence, perspective, and persistence studied in Catholic school history classes.

To put it another way, engaging a student’s imagination when teaching history makes the difference between a) a student leaving history class with a flat, two-dimensional memorization of facts and figures, events, and dates or b) a student ending a school year with a robust, three-dimensional understanding of what happened in the past — the human choices, the why, the challenges and obstacles, the courage, endurance, perseverance, trickery, deceit, and the short- and long-range consequences of these human actions. In other words, learning invaluable lessons from a well-understood and true tale!

The preferred teaching option is clear.

How does this apply in a Catholic school?

As Catholics, the stakes are higher and more wonder-filled. We are called to be of the world but not in it. We are called to personal holiness and prayer. We are called to see all things, even — and especially — human history, in the light of Christ.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen,” writes British author and Oxford professor C.S. Lewis, “not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Students whose imagination has been engaged as they learn history will remember what they learned — not just facts, dates, and people of the past, but the triumphs and victories, the reasons for success or failure, the mistakes, what to avoid, and what to emulate.

Students in Catholic schools should be able to see the unfolding of history not merely as man’s actions, but rather as the unfolding of God’s incredible drama, salvation history, in which we all play an important part!

As C.S. Lewis keenly observed:

“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Engaging the imagination in teaching history to Catholic students includes this broader Catholic worldview and perspective.

In summary …

Teaching history, rather than merely teaching social studies, includes engagement of students’ imagination and reasoning. It provides answers to the “why” questions about human choices, actions, and consequences.

Little or no engagement of the imagination in teaching history leaves students with:

  • a sense that human action in the world is nothing more than values-neutral flatness;
  • memorization for its own sake, rather than for some bigger purpose or use or application to the present;
  • a two-dimensional understanding of the world, similar to a person with short-term memory loss — nothing connects or has purpose even though facts and figures from the past can be recited; and
  • a stunting of the faculty of the imagination and a flat understanding of the world in which we live.

Engagement of the imagination in teaching history gives students the ability:

  • to have hope (for better situations, for positive change, and so forth);
  • to recognize, define, and understand the consequences of human action, heroism, and despotism;
  • to extract from the past and look with fresh eyes upon similar events during other times of history, or even today, and make prudent judgments about a course of action that would lead to better or different results;
  • to recognize patterns, cause and effect, and typical results when certain actions occur; and
  • to ultimately learn to think and evaluate human actions in today’s world — family, school yard and classroom, and later, college, vocation, family, business — from the vantage point of principles rooted in human nature and faith rather than the latest fad or headline.

There can be no better choice in teaching history, therefore, than to communicate the great story and drama of human history, engaging the imagination in every way possible.

Engaging the imagination in teaching history

Some proven-effective tips and ideas to get started:

  • Read aloud autobiographies or biographies of historical figures or stories about events in history.
  • Have students memorize and dramatically perform famous speeches for all or part of the student body (President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Marc Antony’s speech from Shakespeare).
  • Study and read aloud poems on specific historical events (Hillaire Belloc’s works, G.K. Chesterton’s “Lepanto”).
  • Conduct historical reenactments.
  • Have groups of students prepare and perform short sections of historical events for all or part of the student body, parents invited (Paul Revere’s ride or the Charge of the Light Brigade).
  • Contact local historical reenactment groups for an on-campus presentation.
  • Assign three or four creative research options to individual students or groups of no more than two students per group to research, prepare, and present to class.
  • Post famous art in the classroom from a period of history and discuss the art.
  • Listen to the music of various periods of history as that period is being studied.
  • Choose one era per year and have a school-wide day in which all the classes participate in costume, food or banquets, banners, period music, recitations, and performances of that era (such as Medieval Day or Colonial Day). This requires work, as one school that does it quite successfully year after year describes, but it is absolutely worth it! “Teachers have to dig in and give students concrete historical components and assign preparation work so no one comes just wearing a toga, but everyone actually participates,” says the principal, who wished to remain anonymous. “Don’t give the day short shrift in preparation, and you’ll discover that students look forward to the annual experience and later display a remarkable new level of historical understanding over the years.”
  • Build exercises around field trip activities. (One teacher annually took her students to visit a tall ship in a nearby harbor. But in preparation for the daylong field trip, she incorporated an interesting assignment. She broke the class into groups. Each group had to decide which member of the group would take on specific roles the teacher and class had already discussed and outlined (such as ship captain, bursar, and so on). Each group then was required to prepare a business plan for their sea voyage, deciding as a group their destination, how long it would take to get there, what provisions they’d need, what emergency medicine or accident supplies they’d need, and so forth, and how they would secure the money they would need to make the trip there and back. It was a fabulous use of the imagination that added much depth to the historical reality of early sea exploration and trade merchant voyages.)
World War II WASP aviatrixes. Public domain.

World War II WASP aviatrixes. Public domain.

Karen Walker is a former high school and elementary teacher, now working with the Catholic Textbook Project.

Image: World War II WASP aviatrixes. Public domain.

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