history and the age of information


Zeese Papanikolas, Ruth Fallenbaum


For a number of years my wife and I have been watching education in America, as parents, teachers, writers.  We have both taught at the college level, and while neither of us has any claim to special pedagogic expertise or training, it has become clear to us, in our separate fields, that what is most basic to understanding the world around us is what is most lacking in the education given by our schools in the United States and probably elsewhere, and that is a profoundly engaged understanding of history.  The present political campaign season in the United States has made that more and more obvious, as the level of xenophobia, demagoguery, out-right racism and saber rattling has reached peaks not seen by us since the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.  How do we prepare our students to think, when the patient processes of induction and deduction, the layering and evaluating of information, are constantly under attack?

So we put history at the center of the need we have seen in our schools and students. It opposes the sterile now of the bursts of information firing through computer screens like a permanent Fourth of July and, like the dazzling fireworks of our national holiday, just as ephemeral.  

A sense of history needs to be developed early.  But changes in any educational program must be deep and structural.  For education always takes place in a political world: classes that address a specific social problem in a progressive way can be wiped off the curriculum at the first change in public mood.  In the United States educational liberalization is being viciously rolled back in primarily southern states.  Evolutionary theory is being challenged by religious Creationists, attempts to give a true representation of slavery and the destruction of Native American communities are being purged from textbooks and replaced by sections on “patriotism, U. S. exceptionalism and capitalism” as sacred creeds.  In Greece, a brave new start on rethinking education will hopefully create fresh and ways of seeing the world and educating students, but it will be subject to the same political dynamic.  Sooner or later the pendulum will move in the other direction and conservative or even far right governments may come to power.  The new program therefore must be so basic and self-evidently correct that it will be able to withstand these assaults.  And it must also address the laudable but sometimes misdirected effort of educators to train students for the jobs that will be open to them in the future.  In the United States today education seems to be driven by the so-called STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at the expense of the humanities. Philosophy classes are empty, Computer Science classes are over-subscribed.  Inserting historical consciousness into the curriculum may help STEM students and others understand what to make of their jobs and where they are going.  To place their work at the service of the human project, rather than vice versa.

As an exercise in how this understanding might be created, we would like to propose as examples a few categories of study that will help develop a sense of history in our students: history not simply as a catalogue of the events of the past, but as the creator of the present and of the variety of ways that people have literally made history and an opportunity to discover and actually experience the mind-expanding concept, as L. P. Hartley famously said, that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” 


Children think concretely.  Their world is one of physical things, shapes, textures, tastes, sounds, faces. Outside this concrete world is a shadowy land of dreams and fears.  The task of a parent and later on of the school is dispelling those fears, and helping the child in its task of moving from the concrete to the abstract, of developing the ability to sort, categorize, evaluate, label.  This is the project of history as well.


1.) Food.  What can be more basic? What do different peoples eat? How is food produced, marketed, sold, purchased? In California many public schools have vegetable gardens which the children work on, teaching elementary lessons in biology and nutrition. This is a valuable first step in developing the relation of food to human labor and to natural processes.  What of the history of foods, of their dispersal, the impacts of food shortages on historical developments (e. g. the potato blight in Ireland in the 1840s, severe droughts currently in Africa and other parts of the world. The politics of food.  This topic coalesces with the next topic,

2.) Migration.  Where do the various peoples and races of the world come from? Students should early on be able to have a basic understanding beginning with our primal ancestors in Africa to the populating of the world.  In later grades DNA and race/ethnicity should be studied.  Greece is especially interesting because of the many migrations/invasions and the constant mingling of peoples.  What have the various races and ethnicities contributed to world culture? To the culture we call Greek?

3.) Much that students need to understand their world can be subsumed under the topic of historical change.  In California teachers of the early grades, when children’s thinking is at its most concrete, have introduced the concept of historical change by having students do interviews with their parents and, if possible, their grandparents, asking them to find out how things were “back then,” so that they can compare what they learn with how things are now. The child interviewer might focus on two questions 1) what changes do you remember happening in our village/neighborhood since you were young?  2) How did these changes affect you or our family?  Later grades should explore what effects historical change, theories of history. The future.  Climate change and history.  This topic overlaps others, of course.

4.) Money. This is a topic that is seems almost completely absent in elementary through high school in the United States. What is money? Why was it invented? How does it work?  What is interest? What is compound interest? What is usury? Why is it denounced by many religions?  What is macroeconomics? 

5.) From theology to science. The History of basic scientific discoveries.  What is the scientific method? What is a theory?  (Misunderstanding scientific method has had horrible results in United State education. Evolution has been called “just a theory” by religious fundamentalists, as though that means it’s merely and opinion that can be given equal or even lesser emphasis than the biblical story of creation. Popper’s test of falsification (any statement that cannot be falsified is not in the provenance of science.)

6.) Technology and science.  What is the role of technology in historical change? What is a computer? Binary logic, its powers and limitation. Analogical logic. Technology and the State and Technology and moral imperatives.  The history of the twentieth and now the twenty-first century should be addressed for the positive as well as destructive possibilities of technology.

7.) Civic and National life.  It is interesting that so many of the essential words here are Greek.  We would want students to understand the meaning of: Politics, Theocracy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, Demagoguery, Xenophobia, Hegemony and Tyranny.  But not simply be able to define them, but to understand how they work in history and in contemporary life. American education at its best demands discussion and debate and these topics sorely need both. We would like to see high school students in the United States, for example, read Machiavelli’s The Prince try to understand it historically and debate its lessons for good or ill.  What is ideology?  Why do people believe that they believe?


As a Greek American I am keenly interested in the fate of my grandparents’ country in a critical time.  When my wife proposed the topic of money as a basic one I instantly thought of a story from our own family.  My maternal grandfather came to the United States in 1906.  After the hard life of a laborer typical of most immigrants of that era, he eventually established himself and, during the 1930s, sent a good sum back to his older brother who was still in the mountain village of Klepa (Nafpaktos). His brother used the money to buy a year’s supply of grain.  He did not understand money. He died of starvation in Karpenisi during World War II.  I have a happier story to tell about Greece. It must have been late in the 1970s  that I found myself in the village of Agia Roumeli on the south coast of Crete.  I followed some smoke and found the children in the small elementary school dancing around a pyre of burning books.  I asked the young teacher what was happening and he said with a smile that filled my heart “we are burning the Junta’s textbooks.”  History brings disaster, but it brings opportunities for progress as well.


Zeese Papanikolas is a writer on American History and Culture.

Ruth Fallenbaum is a clinical psychologist

They live in Oakland, California


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 33 (1.2016)