While it’s possible (hypothetically) to integrate history and literature, I nonetheless present the following talking points about the typical ways in which these subjects are commonly “integrated.”
- It is one thing to claim that history and literature are “integrated” in a single class and another thing to explain what this means. Most teachers who teach an “integrated” history and literature class have never heard an explanation of what this means or been given an example of what it looks like. They have simply been told, “At this school, we integrate history and literature.”
- Most young humanities teachers are never observed by administrators and given feedback, which means no one holds young teachers accountable for “integrating” history and literature.
- Most humanities teachers live in constant fear of being audited as to how much history they actually teach. These teachers have inherited classes which come with ludicrously long, unrealistic “course descriptions” written by their fired or retired forebears. In these “course descriptions,” their forebears claim to have taught all kinds of things—hundreds or even thousands of historical curios, including obscure eighteenth century Chinese rebellions which the present teacher has never heard of. An academic dean might suddenly appear and ask whether everything on the course description has been taught lately. Of course, it’s one thing to claim, “These things have been taught in the past,” and another to claim, “The guy before you claimed on a purely bureaucratic form to have taught these things in the past.”
- The curriculum of most humanities classes is just a bunch of literature books. It’s Jane Austen and Chaucer and Cervantes. Teachers are expected to invent the history part on their own. This is problematic given that most humanities teachers know literature way better than they know history. Literature teachers are common. History teachers are rare.
- If a humanities teacher knows literature way better than history, that teacher is mainly going to teach literature, not history.
- Humanities teachers tend to just teach literature week after week, month after month, year after year, until someone notices that none of the students know what the British Civil War was, at which point the Humanities teacher gets chewed out for not “integrating” history and literature.
- History and literature are separate disciplines. It makes no more sense to “integrate” history and literature than it does to integrate history and geometry. A curious sort of bureaucrat with little classroom experience tends to believe that because history and literature both involve “books,” they are easily integrated. In fact, the guy who is qualified to teach Jane Eyre or Don Quixote is also generally assumed to be qualified (and to have time) to teach philosophy, theology, history, poetry, composition, “writing,” and hermeneutics—all in the same block.
- The modern LinkedIn user (or Ted Talk listener) tends to believe that anything which is “integrated” is quite sophisticated. A chiropractor can charge $90 an hour. The fellow who offers “integrated chiropractic solutions” can charge $200.
- Most young liberal arts teachers are far better at teaching literature than history, which means they spend 90 percent of their time teaching literature and occasionally throw in a history lesson. For this reason, most classical schools graduate students who know embarrassingly little about history. The only real solution to this problem is either to abandon history and not pretend to teach it, or else to 1) hire people who have backgrounds in history, 2) establish classes called “History” which come with classic history texts and 3) to convene these classes regularly.