I had no interest in the study of Roman history as a boy. It seemed utterly pointless and not as superficially related to American history as was the world of the Greeks. Nor was it taught well – just a slog through names, dates, and a tour of the Empire that might as well have been If It’s Tuesday, it must be the Alps and Hannibal.

On my recent trip to France, however, I visited the Pont du Gard in France as part of a tour of Le Cote du Rhone and Provence. The picture I took on my phone (below), as nice as it is, doesn’t begin to do justice to the enormity and beauty of the bridge. It is justifiably classified as one of the world UNESCO sites: you come away in awe of the marvel of engineering it represented – and grateful that, unlike many Roman ruins, it is in remarkably good shape. No mortar, just gravity and some steel struts hold it together. You can read a brief history of the bridge here.

Of course I had seen pictures like the one I took for many years in various guides and history books (see below). Yet, the picture had no meaning. It was an old bridge, nothing more. But on this warm day in October it came to life.

The bridge is an aqueduct, part of a 30-mile journey of potable water from the river in Uzes to Nimes. Historians think it took a few years to build, using approximately 1000 workers. Most of the water traveled underground through tunnels dug by Romans. Remarkably, the water travels gently downhill for those 30 miles, only a 17 meter vertical drop, delivering 44 million gallons of water daily to Nimes. We also learn from the museum at the site that Romans actually did more than move water: they built great latrines and toilet-like sitting areas – better than some of the ‘Turkish toilets’ still in use in French cafes today (the dreaded footprints + hole).

How in the world did the Romans pull this feat off? Alas, we have only hunches. (A more thorough academic paper can be found here.) Aside: did you also know that this water was used to make cloth, and that we get our word ‘denim’ from Nimes? Jeans are originally from Nimes – de Nimes.

So, I found myself thinking all day as we walked the bridge about human thirst and human waste. And a bridge that had once seemed just pretty became quite intriguing: how did all this Roman technical knowledge get acquired – then, lost for more than a thousand years when thirst and waste are so universal and pressing? How historically have societies addressed the need for potable water and sanitation? From a bridge and thoughts of toilets, to an Essential Question or two.

Meaning in history. Therein lies the challenge for history teachers. We somehow have to go from a bunch of old stones to a live and intriguing question for us in the present – History Alive, in the name of the well-known program that tries to honor this idea. We have to find an angle that brings the crumbled buildings and dead people to life.

Many history teachers, alas, do not rise to the challenge (abetted by textbooks that crush the life out of history). But the problem is not the books. I think we by and large have the books we deserve. The problem here, again, is arguably adult egocentrism as I have argued in previous posts on thoughtlessness. As people who have lived in the world and come to find history interesting we educators take for granted that if students are introduced to what we find of interest then they, too, will naturally appreciate and understand it.

No one captures the naivete of this idea better than Rousseau writing over 200 years ago:

“Full of the enthusiasm he feels, the master wants to communicate it to the child. He believes he moves the child by making him attentive to the sensations by which he, the master, is himself moved. Pure stupidity! . . . The child perceives the objects, but he cannot perceive the relations linking them. . . . For that is needed experience he has not acquired.  We never know how to put ourselves in the place of children; we do not enter into their ideas; we lend them ours and . . . with chains of truths we heap up only follies and errors in their heads” (Emile pp. 168–170)

Learning in history requires a lively imagination and a pro-active, inquisitive mind, in other words; few students have it innately, so it is our job to stimulate and develop both. Our design task thus requires empathetic inquiry: where might this inert stuff be made to come to life in an insightful way? Above I noted that we typically take things for granted. We take clean water flowing through faucets for granted, forgetting how rare in the history of mankind it has been (and how still rare it is in many parts of the world). We take toilets for granted, though much of the world still lacks them. We take for granted that history is interesting. We take for granted that a march through chronology is intellectually meaningful.

But, perhaps more importantly for meaning, as Rousseau notes, we take for granted that the requisite prior experience exists for learning: For that is needed is experience that he has not acquired. Thus if the student lacks key experiences, we have to engineer them (for real or virtually) ‘by design’. History can only come alive if we connect past meaning to meaning-making in the present. Learning history is impossibly difficult for all but the most imaginative and bright if we make the problem of meaning the students’ problem.

Dewey and Phenix. John Dewey, of course, was on to how teacher must tackle this problem long ago. The challenge for teachers of all subjects (not just history), he wrote, is to bring the ideas in content to life:

Ideas, then, are not genuine ideas unless they are tools with which to search for material to solve a problem. . . . He may be shown (or reminded of) a ball or globe, be told that the earth is round like those things; he may then be made to repeat that statement day after day till the shape of the earth and the shape of the ball are welded together in his mind. But he has not thereby acquired an idea of the earth’s sphericity. . . . To grasp “sphericity” as an idea, the pupil must first have realized certain confusing features in observed facts and have had the idea of spherical shape suggested to him as a possible way of accounting for such phenomena as tops of masts being seen at sea after the hulls have disappeared, the shape of shadows of the earth in an eclipse, etc. Only by use as a method of interpreting data so as to give them fuller meaning does sphericity become a genuine idea. (Democracy & Education)

My favorite example of bringing past ideas and experiences to life in the present comes from Steven Levy, a long-time teacher and now an ASCD Faculty member and consultant for Expeditionary Learning. When he as an elementary teacher, he taught early US history. On the first Monday of the unit, in the fall, the students entered a barren classroom – all desks, chairs, and common utensils gone. “Welcome to the New World, Pilgrims,” Steven announced. Over the course of many weeks, students created a “new world” of furniture, food, and governance. (You can obtain a video of one of the years here.)

My finest moment as a teacher was in two similar if more modest experience-designs: putting Socrates on trial, and simulating how a bill becomes law. In the latter case, students I taught 30 years ago still recall with vivid irritation that their bills went down to defeat because they could not persuasively lobby others to vote for it. Why? Because they thought the value of the bill – on environmental issues – was self-evident! (In addition to all the students role-playing Congresspersons, I had 20 adults involved, coached to politically posture and horse-trade for votes.)

The design problem, then, is only met if teachers of history overcome the naïve view that history is a study of past facts. It is not. It is a study of making sense of human experience. The only way a study of the past can have meaning for us is if it is made to speak clearly and intriguingly to our own social experience.

No one has put this better than Philip Phenix 40 years ago in his opus magnum Realms of Meaning. The content of history is not facts but social experience and moral choice:

The subject matter of history is what persons have done in the deliberate exercise of their freedom and in light of moral consciousness. History is the story of what human beings have made of themselves within the context of their physical and social environments. It is the account of the moral adventure of mankind… [p. 238].

A historical event is thus an outcome. An outcome of what? An event is what comes out of human deliberation. It is a decision to act in a certain way. The object of historical inquiry is therefore to understand particular decisions that people have made in the past.

With that understanding of the subject posited, Phenix repudiates all traditional approaches to the teaching of history as ‘chronicles’:

It is clear that history is not the same as chronicle, that is, the relating of observable acts in temporal sequence. The elements of chronicle are not events at all, but simply outward behavior. Chronicle is the skeleton of history without any animating principle, history without any personal significance. The confusion of history with chronicle is one of the chief sources of distaste for history on the part of students…

The goal of historical inquiry is to attain an understanding of past human events from the inside.. Historical understanding thus consists in a recreation of the past through participation, in thought, in the lives of those who made the past what it is. History from this standpoint is making the past come alive in the present.          [ p.239 ]

Phenix summarizes the doing of history accordingly:

Writing history does not consist in taking certain given happenings, arranging them in chronological order, and weaving them into an interesting tale…The historian has to make his own events…The whole point of historical study is to find out what really did happen by reconstructing it in imagination… History may then be defined as that imaginative recreation of past human events that best accords with the evidence of the present.

It is for this reason that Phenix groups history, religion and philosophy into the ‘syntopical’ subjects. They integrate meanings into a unified perspective.  As a result, Phenix offers a shocking proposal: history – like philosophy – should not really be stressed until somewhat late in a student’s life, since it depends upon much prior learning and experience:

“History requires a knowledge of symbols, empirical data, dramatic methods, decision making, and moral judgments to be welded together into a reenactment of the past…. In the later years, in high school and college, he should concentrate on understanding the past, on achieving… perspective, and on interpreting critically all phases of experience.” [ p. 282-283]

The inherent difficulty of history teaching became even clearer to me the next day. We were staying in St. Remy in Provence. Just outside of town is the Roman ruin of Glanum, a small town at the foot of the Alpilles. Too few things intact; lots of rubble; I had limited imagination or empathy: it looked like some old rocks. Ah, but here was the latrine:

So, I at least had another connection to ponder from yesterday (along with my own need to go to the bathroom at that moment).

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should postpone teaching history before 9th grade or look only for simple everyday-life points of connection. But it strongly alerts us to the need to overcome the view of history as a chronicle to march through if we seek to engender interest and understanding from it.

PS: FYI – I copied and scanned the relevant page from a world history textbook. Here is what it says and shows – click on it to see it full size: