How People Learn: History Beyond Facts

  Studies of outstanding history teachers point out how complex it is to create both a learner-centered and knowledge-centered environment when addressing a subject as controversial as history.  The statement Ms. Sterling begins her class with every year, “Every true history is contemporary history,” sums up the issues, both current and historic, that we face every day as we come to terms with what will become “history.”  Who decides what is important enough to put in history texts?  Are history texts unbiased?  Can you really objectively document historic events?  How will history texts decide what to document about our lives today? 

            One of the advantages, or disadvantages the future will need to wrestle with is the influence of the information super highway and the Internet.  Information, news, and entertainment are readily accessible and available.  How to filter it, make sense of it, validate it and ultimately decide whether or not to rely on it is a challenge that should be part of every student’s education.  Student’s can learn how to evaluate the worth of contemporary media stories by looking back at the voices of the past to see how both their contemporaries and the history texts have treated them. 

            Without the advantage of an information highway, we need to look for the voices of people throughout history in their letters, speeches, petitions, diaries, poetry and literature.  Howard Zinn (2004) has comprised a volume of these voices found “in the streets and on the farms, in GI barracks and trailer camps, in factories and in offices”    (p. 24).  He brings the voices of the people making history.  Many of those voices express ideas, struggles and issues we are experiencing today.  Mary Elizabeth Lease in a speech circa 1890 declared, “Wall Street owns the country.  It is no longer a government of the people but the people and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street” (p. 226).  Those words could have been used to describe the state of the current economy. 

            Students need to understand that their voices and experiences and those of their families and communities are the history of tomorrow.  How with their generation be portrayed 50 years from now?


Zinn, H. & Arnove, A. (2004). Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Seven             Stories Press: New York, NY.