History as Reverse Chronology

I am not naive enough to believe this will be easy, but maybe if we just throw the idea out there we can start something that will change the way we think and do things. Also, this may be more problematic with Early Years and lower grades.

Americans will probably remember a specific Seinfeld episode not for a new cultural catch phrase or a strange dance, but for the way the story unfolds in reverse chronological order*. The Betrayal (S09E08) begins with the four friends, disheveled and exhausted, dragging their suitcases into their local coffee shop. The viewer does not know how they got there or why they are so miserable, but over the next 22 minutes, everything that led up to the opening moments (why are they in this position?) comes together as the plot unfolds backward in time, one scene after—or before—another. The show ends where the backdrop to Seinfeld supposedly begins, that is, the day when Jerry moves into his apartment and meets Kramer.

For television, this is quite creative and memorable. In our daily lives, however, starting with the now and retracing our steps (not necessarily in sequential order) to unravel almost any mystery is how we usually carry on. When I cannot find my keys, I go back to every location through which I can remember passing and think of where I could have absent-mindedly set them. When a detective tries to solve a murder, she begins with the crime scene, collects evidence, and comes up with a likely scenario as to what happened. When a co-worker smiles, that is the impetus to share joyful moments and tell stories about the positives of the day gone by. The point is that the questions that arise in our lives come up at this moment, under this particular set of circumstances, and we therefore begin with the now and work backwards to find answer. So why is it that in the classroom History is taught in a chronological, let’s-start-from-the-very-beginning way, with no anchor to the present, no hook to the every day lives of the learners, no apparent relevance to the problems around us?§

I will be blunt: How do we expect to empower learners to come up with their own questions and acquire the tools to identify, explore, and solve problems independently if we fail to connect them with the now? What is the point of teaching History from past to present if along the way we just fill minds up with content, sometimes following bigger themes (e.g. conflict, power, trade), but often going one chapter at a time: the French Revolution, then Napoleon, the the Restoration…. History (and really learning in general) should be about connecting learners to an overarching purpose, one that supports intellectual growth, responsible citizenship, and the cultivation of positive values.†

So let’s teach History backwards! Let’s start from the now and work reverse chronologically to uncover the roots of the problems of today or whatever captures our imagination at this moment. Let’s stop teaching History as a meta-narrative and go delve into its stories thematically!

Why is it that so many people remember History class as boring and irrelevant? Why is it so difficult for so many to let their imaginations captured by History? Etymologically, “history” derives from Greek historia, which means inquiry, so let’s begin with a question that is meaningful to ourselves and go back in time to come to a conclusion.

Our curiosity wills us to pose the questions of today, which have answers in events of the past. Even if we are interested in a far away epoch, we connect intellectually and emotionally with it because of a set of experiences that we have had in our lives. Here is an example. Let’s imagine that one becomes curious about why the Nazis were able to consolidate power. Something triggered this curiosity. Something planted the question in the mind (a movie? a conversation? a book?) and we felt a connected with it on some level, perhaps because of events around us today. In this example, even if one has ample background knowledge of twentieth-century Europe, the question becomes the starting point and can only be answered by going backward in time: the Great Depression,Hyperinflation in 1923, the Munich Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles imposed on the German civilian government… and these do not even take into account cultural-historical, sociological, or technological reasons (among others). Yes, there is a build up to the question, there has to be some background knowledge, but then we go back and retrace.

Another example: In today’s AppleNews, there is a story whose headline reads “Taliban attack hours after US agrees deal to withdraw 5,000 troops from Afghanistan.” How do we begin to understand the situation within global and local contexts? It would make sense for someone who knows very little about the current situation in Afghanistan to ask “who are the Taliban? why is the US withdrawing? why does the US have troops there in the first place? Why is there conflict in this country?” From there, the inquirer would begin to investigate the reasons for war in the country, the religious roots of the Taliban, the consequences of September 11th, the role of the US in training the Mujahideen, the influence of the British in the region, the characteristics of Islam, and so forth. Starting from a simple article in today’s news that captures the imagination, questions are posed, (somewhat) answered, and from there, more questions arise. There should always be more questions than answers.

The point is that we should start with questions, not end with conclusions. It would be too easy to study history chronologically and come to conclusions (or worse, be spoon-fed conclusions) about historical matters. That is not the way historians carry out their craft! In fact, that is not the way any profession operates. Scientists begin with questions (how can I make a more effective barrier to rust?). Marketers do as well (how can I penetrate this foreign market more deeply?) and so do teachers (why is this child not making as much progress as his potential indicates?).

We should teach History starting from a relevant question and investigate what led up to the event. We should start with what is meaningful and go backwards. We should stop assuming students will engage with History is to go through time one chapter at a time. Meta-narratives are increasingly marginalized in contemporary historiography anyway. Shouldn’t we replicate inside the classroom what professionals do outside the classroom (cf. David Perkins Playing the Whole Game).

Let’s learn about History going backward so that our curiosities, questions, and meaningful interests drive our investigations rather than receive History passively one event at a time. This will support student empowerment (which leads to even deeper learning than student engagement) and serve as junior versions of what historians actually do.

* It is my experience that non-Americans do not connect with Seinfeld as deeply as Americans have, so if this is your case, I appreciate you going with me on this one.

§ Some may say that children need to be at a developmentally appropriate stage to understand the abstraction necessary to go backwards with time and space, but I would contend that it is easier for a child to start with now and go back than to imagine a world with dinosaurs and contextualize that. I could be misleading myself, of course, but the point is worth discussing.

† Values are always relative to context, but I venture to say that some may be universal too.

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