Cutler, David: Eric Foner on knowing and teaching history

Cutler, David

“You have to know history to actually teach it”‘, The Atlantic, 10 January 2014

Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize winner (2011 for The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery) who has written a number of books on American history and the practice of history. There were more than 200 comments on the article.

The questions and answers cover what makes a good teacher, striking the right balance between facts and argument, developing history skills, world history, retaining student interest, and the point made in the title of the article. Foner talks about the importance of

being able to write that little essay with an argument. I see that they think, “OK, there are the facts of history and that’s it—what more is there to be said?” But of course, the very selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation. You can’t just separate fact and interpretation quite as simply as many people seem to think. I would love to see students get a little more experience in trying to write history, and trying to understand why historical interpretation changes over time …

We try to teach people the skills that come along with studying history. The skills of evaluating evidence, of posing questions and answering them, of writing, of mobilizing information in order to make an argument. I think all of that is important in a democratic society if people are actually going to be active citizens.

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