for teachers in grades 6–8 History is the study of the past that affects today. It differs from the more structured social sciences of civics, economics, and geography in that history is a story. But, not everything that happened in the past is worthy of our contemplation and reflection. What someone had for breakfast is not history, unless it becomes part of a future story that becomes important. Perhaps it will become apparent years from now that what people ate for breakfast in the early 21st century contributed significantly to the slow decline of our society’s intelligence capacity. In other words, breakfast made people dumber! Maybe breakfast will become history. Right now it is not, and probably will not become so. History studies what is important. But, what is important is the difficulty. Different individuals and different generations and different societies always define and redefine the word “important” according to their ideas, not ours.
History in many ways performs the same function as literature—it helps us to understand life. As much as possible, however, the historian must stick to what actually happened, giving the facts, and explaining how and why something happened. That makes history more “scientifically” based than literature. History is based upon facts. But the facts the historian uses are selected facts—facts that have been selected from the vast amount of information potentially available. History differs from the sciences in that an event, a person, or a situation cannot be re-created in a laboratory setting to test if the outcome will be the same. Some revolutions are successful; some are failures. The reasons may be the same or they may be unique to that particular revolution. Historians are interested in both—what about this revolution was similar to other revolutions and what about it was unique? Both the similarities and the differences will teach about the phenomenon of revolutions and equip citizens with the knowledge needed to deal with future revolutions.
The Delaware History standards require a student to become historically minded to reason, think, and perform as a historian. An understanding of history helps us to predict what will happen in the future based on our understanding of what happened in the past. Both literature and history can be just a good story to pass the time. But, both can also add immensely to our ability to understand human beings and how and why they act the way they do in situations. Sometimes the lesson we learn is not appropriate. That is why different historians and others offer their knowledge to explain new situations. They believe, sincerely, that they have a clear understanding of the new situation. Sometimes they actually do; other times they do not.
In the study of history, chronology is important. As a concept, chronology does not mean exact dates, overly detailed timelines, and long exercises putting events in order. Instead, it means understanding (why and how) that one event may or may not lead to subsequent events. The Second World War developed from the inadequate peace following the First World War. It does not necessarily follow that the Third World War will develop from the inadequate peace of the Second World War. One can easily argue that the results of the two wars differed greatly especially considering the long time span since the Second World War ended in 1945.
Nothing changes as much as history, because history is not what happened but what historians say happened. Each historian investigates a topic or an event by selecting a set of guiding questions and by researching the available records. Please note—the available records—some topics cannot be researched. The questions that guide one’s research affect the conclusions. For example, after the Second World War the European powers lost their colonial empires in Africa. One historian may research this series of events by asking, “What in their tribal culture failed to prepare the Africans to take advantage of the economic opportunities that accompanied independence?” A second historian might ask, “How did the colonial European powers fail to prepare the Africans to take advantage of the economic opportunities that accompanied independence?” Asking two different sets of guiding questions from two different viewpoints results in two very different answers. And, notice that both historians assumed that the Africans could have easily taken advantage of the economic opportunities. That is, of course, if the economic opportunities even existed. The questions matter as much, if not more, than the answers.
Each person comes from a societal and personal background and lives in a particular time and place. But, we all share a past together—the history of our state and nation. The history that all of us know, what one historian once called “the history that the ordinary person carries around in his head,” is the glue, the collective memory that holds us together as a people and as a nation. This is one of the reasons for school to pass society’s values and beliefs on to the next generation. When the public urges the schools to teach more and better history, it is this collective memory that they have in mind. A shared knowledge of history binds together a diverse America and guarantees the continuation of our prevailing values.
But, each historian also comes from a societal and personal background and lives in a particular time and place. These influences sometimes lead an individual historian to ask new questions of old events. This rewritten new history, called “revisionist history,” is an effort to “get it right.” For example, the new revisionist Western history emphasizes the cowboys less and the family experiences of the farmers more. It is less colorful, but it is closer to the average person’s experience in settling the Great Plains. Over time, this revision of the older history may or may not come to be widely accepted. The influence of Hollywood films will probably (incorrectly) continue to cause all of us to think of the cowboy as more important than the farmer in settling the West. With each fresh look, we gain insight into the forces that may have molded and shaped our times. That is why the study of history is so crucial. It enables us to better understand the now around us and to hypothesize about the future based on our understanding of similar situations in the past. The dilemma we face is that we can never be absolutely certain about either our understanding of the past or of the applicability of that understanding to the new situation. In the sciences, some “laws” are absolute; in history, the “laws” are not absolute.
The standards provide a very broad description of the history content for each grade cluster: K–3, 4–5, 6–8, and 9–12. A student who is answering a question must know something with which to argue or explain his or her response. But, there is no list of specific events everyone must know to use in asserting one’s position in a written response. Indeed, part of the challenge of history is that two people cite different facts and ideas to argue their position. Someone listening to a debate or reading a history book must decide not only who argued their position better but also who selected the most appropriate and relevant facts. Since it is impossible for a curriculum to cover everything that has happened, as a textbook will try to do, in a limited frame of time, decisions must be made about which ideas, trends, and patterns in history should be studied in classrooms. Teachers and other local decision-makers should choose historical content based on its relevance to contemporary issues, its importance, its relationship to the big ideas of social studies, and its transferability. For example, immigration—who, from where, and how many—was as important, relevant, and controversial 100 years ago as it is now. Understanding immigration’s causes, effects, and importance to the American culture is necessary for contemporary citizens to reach decisions about how to handle it. Teachers might ask students: how is today’s immigration like or unlike past migrations?