History is a way of looking that interrogates time, memory, and social action. This is part of the reason why history is so difficult to categorize as either a humanity or a social science; history lives in both worlds, and, at its best, historical work holds both constantly in view. History is constructed out of narratives, and it is through such narratives that we as humans find meaning in our lives. While there is no such thing as a perfect history (a map as big as the territory, as Borges wrote), George Orwell was surely correct when he argued that “who controls the past…controls the future.” History is both a moral and an intellectual enterprise.
My philosophy of teaching is inseparable from this view of historical thinking. For me, moving students from a passive focus on data (the battle of so-and-so happened in such-and-such a year, et cetera) to an active and critical engagement with sources, is of paramount importance. Students must never leave my classroom assuming an unproblematic relationship between “the facts” as they are transmitted and the process by which they come to us. History in my classroom is the story of “the changing past” (with apologies to Ken Smith)—complex, contested, and fundamental to our understanding of what is “real” in a particular time and place.
Because history is common to all—we all participate in it, and we all interpret it—it is a profoundly humanistic discipline. This is why class discussion is so important to me. By engaging with the perspectives of others, students not only consider various points of view but become aware of the ways others have struggled with the same ideas at different times and places. This in turn cultivates empathy—an appreciation of the fact that the people who inhabit the past were complete in their humanity, with all the complexity and contradiction that entails.
I believe discussions work best when the ulterior motives of history—the explicit and implicit concerns that shape its construction and determine much of its value—are laid bare, and conversations are free to oscillate between the immediate subject at hand and the significance of that subject for the people in the room. For this reason my students must feel comfortable bringing their complete selves into the classroom with them, so that they can share diverse perspectives and experiences without fear that their sincere insights will be passed over. After all, history is so much more than armchair analysis, idle deconstructionism, or antiquarian dabbling. If students leave my classroom both more curious about representations of the past and more attentive to the way their own values shape their experience of the present, then I will have succeeded as an educator.