How to Teach History? Musings on my first Socratic Teacher

Why do so many high school students claim that their history classes are “boring”? — when we know that history itself is a combination of Game of Thrones and world travel, and that nobody finds those boring? I remember how, in a high school geography class in England in the 1970s, we had to spend three weeks studying the geology and terrain of Western Canadian provinces, memorizing facts and drawing detailed maps — without the geography teacher ever explaining why this should have been of interest to us. At the same time, in an English county rich with relics of industrial history,  no one ever taught us about local geology and terrain, or took us to see an 18th century factory. It is much the same with the teaching of history in American schools: the abstract and remote overview is given priority because it looks more like some curriculum designer’s conception of “knowledge.” In this essay I want to commemorate one particular teacher’s art of teaching history, because what he did really worked.

   Of course, I had my share of conventional history: five years of working through textbooks and class lessons. I remember nothing from age 11-13, but after that a lot has remained in my mind: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the development of labor laws and the long fight for universal suffrage. Every now and then the teacher, Mr.Shilston, would give an exciting lecture on the history of vampires or gangsters, his two set pieces. I learned a lot from my history classes because I enjoyed writing essays in which I had to articulate the causes and consequences of complex events — and it was always the why and how that interested me, not the what or when.

   Even so, Mr. Rawlinson’s A-Level Ancient History class was a revelation: it was the first time I encountered “Socratic” teaching, decades before I even knew the word “Socratic.” Mr. Rawlinson was a svelte, dapper, soft-spoken man with short dark hair and a vicar’s smile. He was always dressed in a light grey suit, with (as I think I remember) no tie but a white shirt buttoned up to the top. In our merciless gossip he was portrayed as “queer,” but this gossip never took off because we all had a genuine respect for him. He never exerted authority, never resorted to corporal punishment, and was always quietly matter-of-fact whenever he had to chastise.  I never got to know him as a person very well, because he was pure teacher: self-effacing, dedicated to the subject and to his students, he reserved his personality for his home life. His erudition was impressive but humble; he read his Greek and Latin authors in Greek and Latin, and he would guide us through difficult passages gently and deftly, without imposing himself.

   The remarkable thing about Mr.Rawlinson was that he taught almost solely by showing us things and asking questions. When studying the Romans in Britain, we would examine photographs of Roman coins and tombs, and we would translate and decipher the inscriptions; we would stare at shards of Roman pottery, note the potter’s mark when we could find them, look up the location of this potter, and then determine which legion must have come from that location to Britain. He would have us figure out which legions came from where, how many legions there were, how many troops in those legions, what these soldiers ate and how much, and then he would make us read the Greek and Roman agricultural writers to figure out how much land and what kind of work would be required to grow that food. Thus we could hazard a good guess at how much land Julius Caesar would have needed to commandeer to quarter his troops in England over the winter. When we looked at the archaeological evidence for Caesar’s occupation, we found our calculations corroborated. Mr. Rawlinson would present the materials and ask us questions. On a few occasions we visited nearby archaeological ruins and saw and measured with our own eyes and hands.

   When we studied the Roman writers, he taught us how to interrogate them. For example, as we pored over Caesar’s account of the invasion, we would ask about his political motivations in presenting his exploits the way he did, and attempt to correlate his claims with the material evidence. When reading Tacitus’ account of Tiberius, we noticed that even the author described  Italy as being fairly well-off under that emperor — so why was the portrait so devastatingly negative? We wondered if in fact Tacitus was using Tiberius to criticize his own emperor, Domitian — so did that mean we would have to take his account of Tiberius’ foreign policy with a pinch of salt, and how exactly? 

   After doing all this work in detail, we would pull our notes together and only then read the relevant chapter in the modern textbook. We would usually find that the textbook was a restatement of what we had concluded ourselves — and the discovery was pleasant and satisfying, because we had reached the same conclusion as the experts by thinking for ourselves. Mr. Rawlinson never made a big deal of this; he just quietly led us in this process of discovery and reasoning. The essays that we wrote for the external examiners were almost entirely the results of our own engaged intelligences — for we were genuinely engaged, activated, even electrified by this direct approach to history, such that even now I vividly recall my excitement at being able to connect this potsherd and that coin with these passages in Tacitus or Suetonius.

   The main thing I got from this was not an accumulation of “things known and remembered”; indeed, I have forgotten most of it except Tacitus and Suetonius, and the dates of emperors. It was rather the activity of figuring out who did what, when, where, how, why. Mr. Rawlinson involved us in reconstructing the past and got us to do it, so that not only did we know how the authors of the textbook had pieced together the fragments of the past to make a plausible story, but we ourselves had also pieced them together. Alongside the historians, we too constructed history, and because we knew what went into this process, we unwittingly acquired a dynamic, critical relationship to history — where “facts” are not simply givens, but actively constructed. Would the teaching of history today be less “boring” if students were asked to cultivate this level of engagement with the making of history itself? In my experience, most people come alive when they know for themselves why something is so and are not just told. Moreover, in our age of “fake news” and a posture of mistrust towards everything the “other side” claims to be true, would it not be better for us in our schools to focus on how we know whether something is true or not, and how to distinguish more from less plausible, than to insist on the primacy of surveys that have been decided by faceless experts? The same thing applies to the teaching of science.

   One night, after an especially exciting class, I had a dream about Mr.Rawlinson. We were in class, on a sunny Friday afternoon in May, and the windows of the classroom were open. His eyes twinkled as he asked a characteristic question: “Why do we have to dig up ancient remains?”

   We stared at him blankly. “We don’t know what you mean, sir.”

   “Well, why are they always underground, instead of just standing around on the ground like every other building? Why do archaeologists have to use shovels?”

   We fumbled around for possible answers, until I blurted out the obvious: “Isn’t it because of the natural rising of the soil, sir, from the activities of earthworms and microbes?”

   “Ah, good guess, Venkatesh! But why would the rise of the soil be so systematic, and everything be so thoroughly buried?”

   “We are completely at a loss, sir.”

   “I will tell you! The ancient Greeks and Romans meticulously buried everything themselves.”

   A long pause. “But why would they want to do that, sir?”

   He chuckled triumphantly. “It was part of their religion, of course! Burying all buildings was a ritual to appease the gods.” We must have looked incredulous, because he added — “Well, can you think of a better explanation?”

   I’m not certain that I ever really woke up from this dream.