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Why Can’t My Student Just Memorize History?


“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” does not, as an aphorism and turn of phrase, refer to the retaking of history courses by students over the summer or in later semesters. Instead, it is meant to caution us against ignoring historical trends and denying the effect of historical events on the context in which we make our own choices. Choices which will hopefully find themselves analyzed in history books as well, among all the other events we now find remote and disconnected from our lives, such as the Immigration Act of 1924 or the Desegregation of the Little Rock Nine. It is quite easy to take an academic attitude of rote memorization towards these moments in history, but all too many students discover on the day of an assessment or test that this attitude is insufficient. We cannot learn history this way and, through my experience with tutoring, I will describe why and what a student of history or social studies might do instead.

History is Not a Story That Can Be Understood as a String of Events

Much ink has been spilled in arguing whether history can be seen as a variously complex narrative or as simply a causal chain of objectively true facts. To understand history, I would argue, requires a complex appreciation of both takes. History is absolutely an attempt to understand, factually, what occurred, and what were the consequences. This can place a lot of emphasis on removing meaning or bias from historical interpretations, as well as portray history as a simple path from causes to effects. However, it is also true that social science, as we teach it, is itself a narrative that is in steps and measures removed from the truth. Appreciating this means acknowledging that the evidence and primary accounts of history cannot communicate the whole and complex truth of what occurred, as well acknowledging that historians are fallible humans who make mistakes and imprint their biases on their work. The truth is that these approaches to understanding history are not mutually exclusive, they can both be useful to understanding history, if the student keeps the fine details of nuance in mind.

Unfortunately, memorizing the events, personages, and points of data in history cannot account for this nuance. The ability to repeat what has been taught to the student demonstrates none of the analytical skills necessary to learn from history. This practice of memorization ignores the non-factual and subjective aspects of the historical record, while also fixates on what is known about history at the expense of that which is yet to be discovered. This approach to social science ill-prepares the student for taking in new facts that are disruptive to the narrative of history they have already committed to memory. Students must be able to comment on, adapt, and account for unknowns in the historical record if they are to build analytical skills. A student who can take in the various parts of the history curriculum while keeping in mind the subjective imperfections of that curriculum will be able to add to and improve the social science curriculum later on as a professional. Such a student will also be better able to take part in civic democracy as well.

Analysis is Not the Opposite of Memorization, but the Director of Memorization

While it may be simple to decry memorization in favor of the all important academic skill of analysis, I believe it would be oversimplifying to throw out memorization at all. Of course students will need to memorize information in order to pass their history classes, this article is concerned with memorization at the expense of all else. The trick is to first analyze which information is worth memorization, to which a student should be able to take cues from their teacher’s presentation of curriculum. Once those details are in the student’s memory, they can then analyze deeper connections and inferences using those details

Trends are a handy concept for focusing analysis in Social Science. A typical history course is divided into multiple units, each of which will focus on a handful of trends. These historical trends might be a movement, a field of progress, a role or undertaking that would fit multiple historical actos, an interaction between groups, or a change or adaptation that is important to understanding what came next. The teacher of the course should be able to, and often is adamant in, identifying the trends that must be understood before an assessment can be completed. By choosing trends to focus on, students can save their memorization for relevant facts that fit into a larger pattern. Ultimately, knowledge of a historical trend can save a student who has not memorized a particular datapoint in that trend, by providing a model they can use to “fill in” any gaps of knowledge when assessed. 

Context is Key in Social Science, and Saves Time

In the end, memorization is an imperfect all-purpose solution to the struggle to gain mastery in history for, as previously alluded, it is exclusionary. Memory is limited and a student relying only on regurgitating memorized factoids will have to decide on which facts are worth memorizing. A student might attempt to learn the identities and accomplishments of every person in their history textbook, but not without ignoring other important facts. Attempting to instead grasp the contexts in which these historical actors made choices will actually save the student time, as understanding the context in which a person acted allows for better inferences as to how they acted in specific situations. 

For instance, rather than memorizing every conflict that the United States was involved in during the Cold War, a student can focus instead on the Truman Doctrine’s Policies of Containment that caused US involvement in these conflicts. This context explains why the United States acted as it did, and knowing this allows a student who, for instance has not memorized the Korean war, to infer that the US may have wanted to contain communism in that country, when trying to analyze this event with a holistic view of the time. That whole-picture view is possible not because a student of history knows every detail contained within the picture, but because they understand what else was going on in the background of those misremembered details. 

Remember, when struggling with history, to study smarter not harder. Save the flashcards for key terms and don’t neglect to analyze the influence of trends and historical contexts. And if you require any further help with your Social Studies classes, there are AJ tutors ready to help!

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