History Teachers: Our Time is Now

Casey Lever, Big History Teacher
Queensland, Australia

lighthouse-1246049

Portland Bill Lighthouse, Isle of Portland, Dorset U.K. Public domain.

Teachers have both an instinctive and a conscious understanding that our role in young people’s lives is vital, and so for the most part we go placidly amidst the noise and haste, ignoring the sound and fury of criticism, often unfair comparisons, and threats of cutbacks that break around us constantly. We know that the discussions we facilitate, the skills we tenderly nurture, and the respect for knowledge and expertise we model and engender in students are vital to their future education and to their wellbeing. We know that one day, if not right now, they will make use of these fundamentals; one day they may even feel grateful for them.

At times, however, there’s a persistent nagging feeling that we’re just not relevant enough. Sure, what we’re doing to satisfy curriculum priorities is important and we should keep doing it. Losing the foundation building blocks would endanger the whole building, and no one is arguing for that. But there are times when the concerns of broader society are so great that students are bursting to talk about them, to think about them, and to have academic rigor applied to them in a way that provides a much deeper satisfaction than that offered by social media.

That time is now.

Teenagers, just like adults, sense that the world is in a period of upheaval, and that the laws and norms of democracy are being tested. They sense that the natural world is under threat and that human lifestyles will be forced to adapt—and sooner rather than later. They sense that the Internet has played havoc with truth telling and that they will need to be able to figure out for themselves what knowledge has been constructed authentically and legitimately, and how to see through those who seek to manipulate them.

Haven’t you ever wanted to be able to talk more directly about these things in your classroom? Get your head out of all the details and talk about why things are the way they are? How did we end up like this? Where is the world headed? And that’s only the beginning. How do we know the stuff written in textbooks is true? Why are we starting to talk about “fake news” and “alternative facts”? What are the strategies we need to distinguish between fact and spin?

Of course, traditional courses do allow for those discussions. They always have and they always will—over time. But Big History puts these questions at the forefront. It pays no attention to traditional and jealously guarded boundaries of subjects. Instead, it looks at the basis of knowledge. It examines scientific and historical thinking, and promotes the astonishing reality that these disciplines have a great deal in common. Seeking truths by testing explanations based on evidence, for one thing. Interrogating claims to see what stands up to scrutiny, for another. And rethinking answers when they have been proven incorrect.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze exactly why I love teaching Big History so much. I’ve always loved teaching history, whatever form it takes, and I’ve always regarded the teaching of science by my colleagues as vital to our young people. But it’s that chance to put the biggest questions of the future of humanity at the heart of my lessons every day that is the key. Every Big History lesson I ask my students to think about, research, discuss and debate the questions we all have about our role in the Universe. Often, those are the very questions they were thinking about anyway, questions that were going unanswered by the traditional school day.

The truth is that some days I feel like there are more important things I could be talking about in my classroom. I’m going to guess that other teachers might feel the same way. Teaching Big History doesn’t make me feel like that. At the risk of hyperbole, I no longer feel like I’m fiddling while Rome burns. Big History has made me a teacher activist; not for any political cause, but for the cause of empowering young people to think, to discover, to judge, and to know their part in creating their own future. And that feels good.

About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. This is her third year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long core history/science subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.

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