What My Students (and I) Learned This Semester

by Will Katerberg

Prior to this class, history courses annoyed me because I always thought, ‘History is history, it happened and it’s over with, that’s that.’ This is true: history is in the past and you can’t change the past. But depending on how you approach history or what method you use to approach it, you can learn different things and answer different questions.

When approaching history now, I don’t think that you can do so from one single perspective. You need multiple approaches . . . in order to gain the full scope of history. This is true with anything in life, if your perspective or approach is too narrow and you lack the ability, as I did prior to this class, to change your thinking or to think in other ways, taking another perspective, you will miss part of the picture and remain closed minded.

I taught the first half of world history this past semester (History 151) from early humans to the globalization that followed from the voyages of Columbus. I hadn’t done that since 1998, at another institution. Every class session was new, as I figured out how to teach yet another topic I’d not taught in 16 years (if ever). Some days I taught material where my own knowledge ran a little bit deeper, other days material where I’m not yet very far below the surface.

I felt like a wet-behind-the-ears assistant professor all over again. Not a bad experience, for someone mid-career, but it was a whole lot busier than I remember it.

On the final exam, I asked my students to reflect on the following set of questions:

  • Over the course of the semester, we have examined human beings and their history from the earliest humans to the time of Columbus. We’ve seen how people in the past were very different from us, in obvious ways, such as the technology they used, compared to ours, and complex ones, such as how worldviews and practices in reading and writing differed from ours. We’ve also seen some of the roots of our world today, in the emergence and evolution of religious traditions, ideas, technologies, and networks. Finally, we’ve thought about how scholarly analysis, in history and science, works.
  • Of these many things, what strikes you as the most interesting and important? How has studying this affected the way you understand things? Has it changed the way you think—in small ways or large ones? Reinforced how you think? Etc.

ReillyI was not sure what to expect, other than a range of results, from hurried sketches and scattered comments on intriguing trivia to deeper reflection on fundamental themes that have the potential to reshape how a person sees the world and his or her place in it. I was surprised by how many students took the time to write a lot and how much depth they plumbed.

Many students wrote about asking new questions or learning new things, in ways that make them think about the past and their lives in the present in new ways. Some, like the student quoted above, focused on meta-historical issues. Others talked about specific themes, notably human networks and “globalization,” learning something about themselves by learning about others, or the challenge of learning to think critically about traditions that we trust, love, believe, and live.

Here are some snippets from their responses, quotations from students in italics, my observations or contextual explanations of what they’re referring to in regular font.

Out of all the topics we discussed, the one that left the greatest impact was our discussion of Christianity in a historical context. Studying Christianity in the context of world history challenged me to think about it in a new way.

clineAs an example, this student pointed to comparing the account of Noah and the flood to very similar stories in Babylonian literature and to very different flood narratives in Native American creation stories. He and other students also mentioned looking at the role of scribes, the cultures of reading and writing in the Iron Age and Classical worlds, and academic disciplines such as archaeology.

This student appreciated being asked to consider challenging material, given models to help think through it, and left room to “contemplate how this historical knowledge fit my personal beliefs.”

I am very glad I had this opportunity to grow in my beliefs and I feel that I am now better equipped to understand my faith and beliefs in the future.

Many students enjoyed using a variety of methods of understanding history, and how this allowed them to make connections to other courses they were taking or to their majors.

Taking [courses in biology, public health] and history at the same time was so interesting, just to see the overlap. Jared Diamond’s book makes a person ask the deeper question of how much influence do humans possess in charting out the course of their lives . . . If environment really can predict so much, why act like our efforts account for anything? [Kevin] Reilly and other discussions pointed me to this conclusion: It’s a two way street.

This student was referring to the course textbook, The Human Journey, which emphasizes that for our species, cultural evolution has been more significant than biological and shows the human impact on the natural environment.

Other students make similar points.

For me the integration between history and science for the scholarly analysis of history was the most interesting part. Attending [a small town high school] formed my view of history as a bunch of names and dates. Before this class I never saw a cross-over between my love of the sciences and history.

That’s from a student who enjoyed reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, and was comparing the merits of his approach to the past with that of historians and archaeologists. Here’s another student making a similar point:

Out of what we have studied over the semester, two things in particular strike me . . . One, how scholarly history and science work, and why it is important. . . . Second, the connections between the human aspect and the environmental aspect of history. Understanding this has helped me to see more cause and effect, that history is not just meaningless events in the past but still influences our lives today and our future.

diamondBoth of these students emphasized that they found Jared Diamond’s bio-geographical argument compelling as a way of explaining “deep” causes in history, but argued that “cultural” factors (politics, demography, technology, religion, ideas, etc.) are more significant causally in explaining history on other scales of time. Both students also said they found the significance of human “networks” fascinating–i.e., links between societies regionally, continentally, and since Columbus globally.

Many other students emphasized this point about networks too. Here’s one:

Studying the idea of [human] networks in this history course helped me see how and where networks emerged, but challenged me to see how networks function today. I love that people were intrigued by new technology, religions, and cultures in the Silk Road era because this intrigues me today.

Part of the story laid out by Reilly in The Human Journey, is a comparison of the impact of networks on the social evolution of peoples in North Africa and Eurasia to peoples in inner Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas. One student responded to this comparisons this way:

Another fascinating question that sounds so basic, but was profound for me, is why do we study history? It reflects many aspects of human nature repeatedly. We also can draw from our studies larger patterns . . . , while taking care to listen to the narratives of [peoples who don’t fit] in the patterns we identified.

Another student, similarly, discussed the value of examining human networks, parallel developments, and comparative history.

Any time I took history in high school or prior, it was always a linear progression of dates and events, culture by culture, region by region. Of course we knew that there was always interplay between societies, but it was never emphasized. Diamond, Reilly, and this whole course really broadened my perspective on history, understanding it not so much as a timeline but as, well, a human journey.

Another student started by talking about human networks and parallel developments, but circled around to the “biology” vs. “cultural” approaches of Diamond and Reilly, generalizing about what he learned:

They both bring up fantastic points about the progression of history. Neither of them is completely wrong either. This showed me how my understanding of something isn’t where knowledge stops . . . Both of these views lend detail to the progression of history. However, neither of them knows the whole truth. No one person can point out exactly what caused things to happen in the past . . . In summary, I would say that exploration of scholarly analysis and evolution of the past has deepened my understanding of the human mind’s capability to seek new knowledge. No two thought processes between humans is the same.

Faculty often lament what students “don’t get” or what they confuse—and sometimes, seemingly perversely, how they infer the mirror opposite of what we mean. Sometimes that’s so. When I look back on this semester  of teaching History 151 for the first time, and what my students learned, I think, in good Midwestern fashion:  “not bad all at all.”

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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