Middle and Upper School history teacher Omar Qureshi joined The Browning School in January, 2017. Mr. Qureshi earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree from Franklin and Marshall College. He has been teaching for 25 years, including 16 years at The Brearley School and six years at The University of Chicago.
When people learn that I teach history, almost always they will comment that while I must be a wonderful teacher, when they took history in school it was not only difficult but invariably boring. There are good reasons for finding history boring, and teaching history is in essence a search for ways of making it less so. After all, history is the sum total of past human experience and as such can comprise near infinite detail. This plethora of names, dates, places and developments can be debilitating and, if consumed in high enough doses, fatal. As soon as one attempts to settle on a perspective, an interpretation, a story or a theory to make this detail mean something, yet more facts encroach to erode our seemingly premature generalization. Pushing ostensibly minor variables aside, when we nevertheless persist in trying to use our model to compare two or more historical events or try to predict future developments, we find our theory more distorting than enlightening because it did not consider all the variables. Subsequently, we aim for greater interpretive precision and start adding more details, but these only serve to reinforce the specificity or particularity of each historical moment and defy the emergence of any meaningful patterns or generalizable insights at all. In the absence of any patterns or emergent properties, how do we make sense of history? Is it really “one damn thing after another,” or in Henry Ford’s immortal words, “bunk”?
Perhaps. But perhaps salvageable. History as such may not have much meaning, but it can assist us in making meaning and thus potentially even help us live meaningfully. There are several ways to do this and all necessarily involve some degree of distortion of the historical past, since it is practically impossible and almost certainly undesirable to present the past “as it really was.” Most frequently, history is taught as the past of a group and of the individual who belongs to this group. It tends to be more or less parochial in that it is a record of unique traditions and how these have persisted over time or if now dead have left a legacy. Because this type of history celebrates the past and aims to continue to preserve what is most valuable from it, it is naturally conservative. To that degree it also reinforces group and individual identity. Its watchword can be said to be pride, or in a phrase, love of one’s own.
Another type of history that many of us are familiar with from school involves the study of heroic individuals or great events and the actors who played a role in them. This sort of history is meant to model and inspire great deeds. Perhaps the textbook example of this sort of history is the cult of Napoleon in 19th century France, and as this example indicates, encourages lack of concern with safety and security and almost heedless daring. It pays little attention to long-term causes or some unfolding logic of history and instead has faith that by taking great risks and being unconcerned with mundane needs and comforts, or the costs, an individual or a special group can change the course of history. This view of history promises honor and glory, and by showing that ambition, courage and hard work were rewarded in the past suggests that this is still true. This kind of history is surely the most exciting to learn and to teach as we momentarily rise above the perpetual heaving of cause and effect and admire greatness.
A balanced pedagogy should contain yet another kind of history that deploys it against itself. One learns from the past not to preserve it, nor as motivation, but to be better able to destroy it, or at least portions of it. Reverence for the past or a past that galvanizes are both replaced, ideally supplemented by an always partial rejection of history that opens up opportunities, the space, to create something new. This sort of critical history tries to convince that change for the better is always possible, and that despite the record of the past that shows the vanity and folly of human endeavor, “Progress” will finally usher us into the future we have long been waiting for. This sort of history particularly appeals to the young unless history taught badly or excessive historicizing that is our culture’s idée fixe has already habituated them to irony and cynicism.
No teaching or learning is possible without sustained effort and engagement from the teacher and students, and effort and engagement are only feasible if one is able to think and communicate. The habits of mind and body that include facility with language, analyzing arguments, evaluating evidence, being able to articulate one’s own point of view in writing and verbally, and being dialogically open to others’ opinions have to be internalized and sustained through repetition. This discipline, this work ethic, is true character and the reason for much of the difficulty of history classes. Given the right circumstances, mastering this discipline through the study of history has the potential to enrich one’s character and may on occasion make history class less boring. In this way, history can be made to enhance our lives after all, but history per se continues to present dangers. Teaching history remains the Sisyphean labor of trying to keep one’s students from being swamped by it.