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The Apprentice of History: Contemplating Students, Knowledge and the Study of History

History, (generally the study of the past and what historians think about the past through their interpretation) is a transformational field of human study. However, for many students new to the discipline, history can be one of the most challenging aspects of their academic existence. Students attempting to engage history fall into quite a few categories. Students are either a) absorbed by history, b) indifferent to history (citing they have only the need to acquire 3 credit hours), or 3) they loathe history. Students who say they love history refer to experiences with family members or school teachers who inspired them. Other students, especially noted among those who become majors, cannot initially express exactly why the discipline of history captivates them. The field of study fascinates and stimulates their being; and many see the even greater implications of history as theory and praxis. They discover what historically erudite people already know, that history is the gateway to the past, the bridge to understanding the present, and can offer meaningful insight into the future. Students with more than a passing interest in history tend to value dynamic classroom dialogue. They participate freely and aptly in the drama of discourse. They agree, disagree, learn, discuss, question, and write history with a keen sense of determination. They solve problems and engage in complex analyses of ideas, events, people, and issues from the past. In my estimation, these students, the apprentices of history, will go on to be the prominent leaders and thinkers in society. Most of all, those passionate about history understand that the past requires time for reading, studying and analyzing; and the ability to formulate rational critiques.

However, this blog is more concerned with students who, without ever having taken a collegiate history course, state at the beginning of classes that they “hate history.” To explain the basis for their animosity, they often cite a former instructor or professor who they found “dull” or who “bored” them; or worse, failed to sufficiently entertain them during the class period. Too often, these students do not want to read history, and when they do read, they automatically create the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that historical studies is problematic. These students can grow into adulthood with such a disdain for the discipline that they learn to dismiss the importance of history and historical studies altogether. For them history was either so unknowable (or they have made the assumption that anyone can do what professional historians do), that they discard the discipline or confine it to the intellectual regions of territorio peligroso or dangerous territory. Instead of expanding their thinking about the past and the clarity gained from perceiving connections, patterns and relationships—they say history is not relevant to our existence. The severe detractors of history will say this, when in fact our existence is wholly dependent upon the past—what is was, what we think it was, how we study it, how we interpret and disseminate it. Their mantra, that history is not important, is utterly incongruous because history has always been the fulcrum of analytical/critical thinking skills.

Among students who are just beginning to exhibit history-hating personas, there are those who do not appreciate the discipline because they simply didn’t see themselves in the pages of past (meaning their own history, heritage, ancestry, people, culture, etc.). There are millions of people who, within their own countries, are only able to see themselves outside of history (time, space, place, antiquity, etc.). They were schooled to see themselves as historical problems, rather than historical people addressing challenging human issues. This phenomenon in and of itself should be studied and addressed as a crime against humanity, because the ways in which the knowledge of the past was presented was meant to injure or omit, rather than include, inform and enlighten. To the sons and daughters of these people especially I say a genuine appreciation of history presupposes an authentic respect for knowledge acquisition in all areas of human inquiry. History is not hard, it requires commitment. Achievement in history requires skill, but also an inner dialogue about what we really believe about a world of ideas, data, facts, knowledge, and the uses of this information.

Finally, history, for the able apprentice, is about taking responsibility for one’s own learning. A professor may claim some influence over an exceptional student, but it is the student who has “educated” him or herself on how to be a highly effective apprentice of history. They have empowered themselves to see how history reveals human change over time—what people thought, how societies changed, and how we document the rise and fall of civilizations. They organize historical information to demonstrate concepts such as cause and effect, and the consequences of human conflict and cooperation. For the apprentice of history, historical studies provide a broader picture, a greater range, of one’s own world.  For historians know no boundaries and no margins. People who understand power view the study of history as an essential tool of self-preservation and progress. History is “not a foreign country” or an unknowable terrain. Students have an obligation to optimally engage the global society we see ourselves in today.  History is the beginning of true knowledge.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

(Previously recorded on History Is A State of Mind Productions)