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Another Take on History Learning

Another Take on History Learning

I’ve been teaching an honors course on the history of emotion for a few years now, and have always enjoyed both the course and the students – despite or because of the fact that few if any intend to be history majors. The year the course has been particularly lively, and it – along with a related recent presentation by Jason Reid, author of the intriguing book on the history of kids’ rooms in the United States, sparked a rewarding comment that deserves some attention as we seek to explain why history learning is important.

Of course we must continue to make all the usual bows: to history as a source of job-relevant skills, from critical thinking to good writing and argumentation; to the discipline in conjunction with an array of possible internships and realworld experiences; to the vital need for historical perspective for constructive citizenship in today’s troubled national climate; and certainly to history’s role in exploring global relationships.

I deeply believe in all these worthy points, but I wonder if in our earnest and recently somewhat anxious defense of our discipline we haven’t become a bit too somber and cautious.

For we must not forget about history as discovery, about its role in sheer intellectual stimulation, which is where the student’s comment comes in. Responding to Jason’s talk, in the context of the emotions history course, she wrote: “I never even considered the fact that there is a history of the rooms in which teenagers practically burrow themselves for six or seven years. As I’ve learned in this class, though, everything has a history, including teen bedroom culture….I am constantly fascinated by our class discussions when we observe and analyze historical changes that seem so ordinary but often are rather complex; it was fun to get to do this with teen bedroom culture, also.”

And, obviously, the comment strikes gold. The realization of history’s wide purview, its capacity to provide new insights about apparently routine aspects of our own lives today, can generate exactly the response one would hope for — discovery, fascination, and fun. It should be added that the student in question is a math major, not interested in shifting gears but hopefully adding a perspective that should serve her well after this class is over, and whatever her ultimate career path.

For what should result when a student comes to the realization that there’s a history of almost everything? Not, one hastens to assure, some impossibly lengthened list of survey topics – many of us try to cover more things than we should in that mode already. No: the goals should be, first, a realization that we need not be trapped by an assumption that things as they are, even ordinary things, are somehow naturally ordained and immutable – by selectively exploring how some of them came into being, we can also create room for greater understanding and even a sense of alternatives. Encouragement to a habit of asking – periodically – I wonder when that started, and why?– offers a regular path toward greater perspective on the culture around us and even – again, once in a while – an interest in exploring changes to some of the our productive norms and routines, once it’s understood that if they are historically constructed they can be amended.

But also, pure intellectual pleasure, the fun that can come from opening a box and figuring out what some of its contents mean. Not to everyone’s taste perhaps, but a real asset nevertheless, and one that we should make more room for even in entry-level history programs. Potentially, there’s a history of anything human that is not biologically immutable, and letting more students into this secret can make their lives more enjoyable as well as more comprehensible – in class, but potentially well beyond. It’s a joy, obviously, to work with students who begin to figure this out.

Thanks to Madeline Treiber for permission to use her comment. Jason Reid, Get Out of My Room; a history of teen bedrooms in America (University of Chicago Press, 2017).