Learning History: Dates or Trends?

The old conventional wisdom was that dates were important, hence an “educated” person is supposed to know that 1776 was the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War lasted from 1860-1865 and that William the Conquerer successfully invaded England in 1066. So generations of school children memorized lists of dates and events in hopes of passing their final exam…and often forgot them 15 minutes later.
But are the dates important or is it the trend that matters? After all what’s the point of knowing that the Civil War took place in the 1860s if you don’t understand that it was a major conflict over racial equality vs. states rights and the impact of both on Western expansion of American territory (more or less). So the modern trend in historical instruction has often been to focus on the the trends behind the dates and not worry so much about dates. Memorizing trends instead of dates is now the new conventional wisdom.
Makes sense right? Actually I’ve found there is a teeny problem. It’s often the case that if you completely skip dates you lose some nuance that really could help you understand history at a deep level. If you’re not careful history can become a weird melange of events of that happened sometime between WWI and the Moon landing.
And if you wish to ANALYZE history instead of just reading about it – you have to deal with dates. Using dates to sequence events is critical to constructing a “narrative”. Without an accurate chronology, your analysis will not just be wrong but usually wrong in a howlingly inaccurate way that will have the date dweebs on floor screaming, laughing or crying.
Picture, if you will, a confused child of the 22nd century who can’t quite distinguish the two president Bushes claiming that we invaded Kuwait to avenge the the loss of of the World Trade Center and the simultaneous Oklahoma City bombing. Of course this is someone who has merged the 1st Persian Golf war in Kuwait with two separate events.
It sounds funny, but it’s also a little dangerous. As an adult, the same person could wonder why we’ve invested so much in Kuwait when they’re our mortal enemies and underestimate the dangers of domestic terrorists who are the ones who actually set off the bomb in Oklahoma City.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t explore deeper issues such as “Why is Al Qaeda attacking us?” but that knowing details such as dates and locations really help form a fuller picture of what’s really going on. I have to say, a lot of modern Middle Eastern politics did confuse me until I learned more about the Ottoman Empire in Turkey and how some of it was divvied up after WWI into French and British territories for a while. Suddenly…a few more things made sense and I really understood some of what Al Qaeda was mad about (it’s not really just the US by the way).
So if we are serious about students learning higher-order thinking … I really do think we have to teach students how to memorize and use dates (and locations) in their thinking as well as social trends like “nationalism” and “colonialism”.

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