Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Passion for the Past

Earlier this week in my Teaching History course we read the first several chapters of James Percoco's A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History. Percoco's book is chock-full of interesting ideas to get high school students engaged in the doing of history.   Later in the semester my students will create historical bumper stickers and "historical heads" in accordance with Percoco's instructions in chapters 3 and 4.  Most students find Percoco's book a much needed break after reading through Gary Nash's History on Trial and Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Though they are quick to point out that many of Percoco's ideas are only feasible in the wealthy Washington D.C. suburb where he teaches, most of the students find the book useful as they think about future teaching careers in schools and public history sites.

Percoco begins A Passion for the Past by describing his "passion" for history.  He describes his work as a history teacher in terms of vocation, choosing the phrase "soul work" to capture his deep sense of calling to the teaching profession.  Throughout the first chapter Percoco describes his "love affair" with Clio (the muse of history) and talks about his "spiritual connection" with the past.

Percoco's use of religious metaphors raised some interesting conversation in class.  Since most of my students are Christians, they felt uncomfortable using phrases like "soul work" and "spiritual" to talk about teaching history.  But after we overcame these hurdles we talked about what it might mean to explore the past, in all its otherness, as a form of "spiritual connection."

I tried to get my students to think about historical interpretation, writing, and teaching in terms of helping students and readers connect with worlds that have been lost.  Good historical writing and teaching will help people get as close as possible to the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of these lost worlds.  Empathy--the practice of "walking in the shoes" of someone who embodied a way of life that has long since passed--is the gateway to historical understanding.

In order to illustrate what Percoco calls a "spiritual connection" with the past, I brought up a 2001 article by Jill Lepore entitled "Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography." A few students in the class had read this piece a year ago during my Historical Methods course, but most of them were unfamiliar with it.  If you have read this essay, you may recall Lepore describing her experience sitting in an archive in Massachusetts stroking a lock of Noah Webster's red hair and imagining what it would have been like to know Webster and his family.

As was the case last year with my Historical Methods course, most of the students in my Teaching History course thought that Lepore's description of her encounter with Webster's hair was "creepy."  If this is what Percoco meant by a "spiritual connection" with the past then he was creepy as well.  And since I was defending the kind of historical imagination that Lepore and Percoco were espousing, I think they thought that I was pretty creepy too.  Yet I pushed harder.  Don't artifacts such as locks of hair offer us a kind of entry into the past that we might not otherwise be able to access?  As history teachers shouldn't we be doing everything we can to get our students to develop spiritual connections with the past?

I have been assigning Percoco for ten years, but thanks to my students creepy feelings I came away from class with a new appreciation for the kind of passion and mission he brings to his high school classroom.  I hope my students will come along.  In the meantime, we are turning to Bruce Van Sledright's The Challenge of Rethinking History Education.  Stay tuned.