Last semester I took a Chinese history class that the professor had nicknamed "Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Chinese History in One Semester." That sounded like a pretty tall order, but by the end of the semester we in fact had traveled almost fifty centuries from the establishment of the first dynasty in 2200 B.C.E. through the death of Deng Xiaoping in C.E. 1997. Could it be that I had in fact learned everything I'd ever wanted to know about Chinese history in one semester? When I picked up the books we had read and began paging through the chapters we had skipped, I saw there were centuries we had glossed over, people we had never heard of, and events we had never talked about. I realized the class should really have been called Everything My Professor Had Ever Wanted to Teach About Chinese History In One Semester. How had he decided what to teach and what to omit?
Teaching history involves condensing centuries of events into one or two short semesters. I cannot help but think of Sisyphus from the Greek myth, who was doomed to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity because every time he reached the top the boulder rolled back to the bottom again. As soon as a history teacher thinks she's covered everything, she finds more events, more people, and more places she's missed. And, as in a Greek tragedy, a chorus incessantly chants, "What do you teach? What do you leave out? Who decides?"
Such questions become even more difficult to answer as technology multiplies the amount of information available to us. In my Chinese history class, the closer we came to the present the more sections we seemed to skip in our books. While only a few reliable records remain about ancient Chinese emperors, I can only imagine how many articles, biographies, and television news stories exist about Mao Tse Tung. Tools like CD-ROMs make the ability to condense and store information seem limitless, but with all the material available in computer databases, news-station video archives, and best-seller lists, historians have more and more difficulty wading through it all. Students must increasingly rely on their teachers to guide them through this sea of information.
Videos and CD-ROMs cannot tell us how or why events happened. That will still be up to us to decipher. Names, facts, and dates may be the building blocks of history, but deciding what to teach in a history class is like editing a paper: What you include and what you leave out depend upon your thesis, the relationships among all those facts and events. Teaching history therefore seems not so much a question of what facts to teach, but how to relate meaningfully the innumerable facts, dates, and names.
The relationships will vary with the teacher. For example, my Chinese history professor happened to prefer the Sung dynasty, and so a number of his lectures stressed the importance of the Sung dynasty to Chinese history. He barely mentioned such dynasties as the Tang, which lasted just as long and did as much to shape China. Because of the subjectivity of historical interpretation, a teacher does her class a disservice if she does not make it clear that her presentation of historical reality is exactly that: her presentation. What distinguishes a history teacher who inspires from one who is merely knowledgeable is her degree of hubris. By presenting themselves as the ultimate authorities and their views as the ultimate truth, some professors limit their students' ability to think by encouraging them to accept one word as the only one. The inspiring professors, on the other hand, express historical frameworks that are factually sound yet allow students to examine the concepts critically and to propose alternatives.
I am not suggesting that all historical interpretations are equally valid, only that teachers must be clear about who has chosen the interpretations being taught. One semester is not long enough to learn everything we have ever wanted to know about a country's history. But by giving students an engaging conceptual framework while making it clear that the story is incomplete, the best teachers pass on both the skills and desire to go out and seek the rest of the story for ourselves.
Alison Mara Friedman is a sophomore comparative literature concentrator from Washington, D.C. This essay is adapted from a speech she gave to the New England History Teachers Association at the 1999 Emerson History Awards ceremony held in Boston last March.