History Doesn’t Care About Your Exam

I got an A in my history class in college. I memorized the facts (this thing happened), and the sequence of events (this happened after that which caused this).

There was a system, and I followed it. The system: remember these things, memorize this sequence, and you’re likely to get an A.

My history class could have been so much more than just memorizing facts and sequences. Because history itself is so much more than just memorizing facts and sequences. History doesn’t give a damn about your exam, or whatever college you’ll be able to get into if you get a certain grade. History is about learning which mistakes we should be most careful of ever making again.

When they write about us fifty years from now – when future professors teach history classes about the 2020s – will their students need to memorize the facts and sequences of things that happened?

I hope not.

I hope that education in the future looks less systematized; less about the end results; less about an exact lesson plan, and more about trying to solve difficult problems whose answers can’t be found in the back of the textbook.

Difficult questions to ask in a history class, whose answers can’t be found in the back of the textbook include:

  • If you were faced with this particular circumstance, how would you react?
  • How would you support your family, your community?
  • What work would you do to increase the chances of your and your family’s survival?
  • What character traits would you let flourish?
  • What character traits would you let die off, because they’re not useful during times of uncertainty?
  • How would you use your time to better yourself?
  • How would you keep yourself less suggestible to narratives of panic and fear?

These are difficult questions because they force you to think in novel ways. You can’t just google the answers to these questions. Nor can a professor give you the answers if you’ve given up. And if you give up – if you were to actually give up trying to find the answers to these questions if you were really in the circumstances described by future history professors – you’d make things worse for yourself and your family. And that’s a worse fate than getting a B- on an exam.

These are questions with real consequences for those who can’t come up with any answers. Which is why we should ask ourselves these questions now, in the present, and not when our present has become our history, and especially not if we’re asked to theorize about what we would do if we were in times of uncertainty.  We’re in times of uncertainty right now, and it’s not time to be theorizing. It’s time to be asking difficult questions, finding answers, and acting out the answers that we’ve found.

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