You can enthuse your history students by telling them why the study (and teaching) of history enthuses and captivates you and by showing them at least three ways “what’s in it for them”: (1) studying history helps to explain why the present is as it is; (2) studying history brings that explanation into a focus that “connects the dots” between different times and seemingly unrelated events; and (3) studying history gives the student a unique sense of immortality.
♦ Explaining the present in context with the past
Show your student that studying history is much like arriving late to a movie. What is going on eventually becomes somewhat clear, but there are things that the actors do that somehow don’t make sense. It is only by watching the outcome of the movie and then seeing it again from the beginning that brings everything into meaningful focus. Tell the students that the “actors” in history are the characters in the “plot” that unfolds in a sort of unscripted way.
Human history in many respects is the sad repetition of actions motivated by shortsighted selfishness of people who should know better, but ignore the lessons of their own history. Young minds tend towards idealism and humanitarian concerns. Tell them that history has the lessons we need and challenge them to do better than the past “actors.”
♦ Connecting the dots
Studying history from “connecting the dots” point of view takes the by-rote drudgery out of memorizing dates and events. Tell your students that dates are not so important as time lines of cause and effect. For example, how did the original compromise wording that accommodated slavery in the United States Constitution eventually result in our tragic Civil War 70 years later? Connect those two “dots” and students will in a flash of insight perceive what must be understood about the history of the United States, the role of sectional conflict and the still festering racial tensions in American society today.
♦ A “reverse immortality”
Young students have an irrepressible sense of immortality to begin with. Enthusing youngsters about history can add a notion of intellectual omnipotence. The trick is to challenge the student to think critically and come to their own conclusions over controversial historical events and questions. Present the facts in an unbiased manner, and let your students think, debate and decide. Judging events of history from a current perspective carries with it lessons in relativity and perspective and spills over across the entire educational experience.
Finally, if the teacher is enthusiastic about history, keeps the class engaged by employing a variety of teaching styles, the students will begin to look forward to learning more about how they fit into the “big picture.”