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Stop Pretending To Integrate History And Literature

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.”

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. If a humanities teacher knows literature way better than history, that teacher is mainly going to teach literature, not history.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9.  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.

4 thoughts on “Stop Pretending To Integrate History And Literature”

  1. Thank you for this honest assessment. My teaching experience comes primarily within a cooperative model. We “integrate” history, literature, and philosophy in that we have a singular humanities class. However, we give that class extra time, and spend about an hour on each per day. My observations:

    1. No person begins their career as an expert in either history or literature, but is knowledgeable about certain history or literature. This means that a good teacher is devoted to learning a great deal whenever tasked with taking over a new class. Integration makes this a more arduous task.
    2. It is easier to familiarize yourself with new literature than with a new era of history. You can be a serviceable literature teacher (not a great one) with less work and knowledge than a history teacher. History is notoriously complex.
    3. Integration is not as important as a clear plan. A clear curriculum plan can allow the right literature and history to be taught together. It makes since to read Homer and Sophocles the same year that you study Herodotus and Alexander. I would also say that is true of philosophy.
    4. Which is better, to ask a teacher to master the breadth of literature, or to master a specific era of literature, history, and philosophy?

    My primary takeaway from this article is that it is crucial for schools to hire people for the long haul–to provide time for a teacher to grow and learn their material well. Clear and consistent curriculum allows teacher growth.

    1. All good points.

      I (too?) think many of Josh’s points could be (and should be) solved by better curriculum and syllabus planning by someone who’s keeping all of those points in mind.
      My experience in our 1 day a week home school community has some commonalities with what you’ve described- our humanities classes were 3 hours long (with breaks) so each subject had it’s own block, even if taught by the same teacher, and it was more concurrent time periods than it was “integrated”.

  2. The key point is the teacher. If you have a teacher proficient in both literature and history, along with philosophy, let’s say, you will have a reasonably good chance at pulling of something that treats the human experience much more broadly than the narrow contemporary academic categories (themselves the product of German Enlightenment) can provide. That said, if you do higher English majors, they will bat to their strengths and emphasize the literature. If you bring in a history major, they will bat to their strengths and lean into the history side of it. I think this is why classics majors tend to be good candidates for jobs like this because their experience is with the letters of ancient Greece and Rome such that they can speak to the texts themselves and the historical contexts into which they were written. That said, it does become much harder the further from Antiquity one travels to find those “generalists.” Maybe someone double-majored in philosophy and history and loves the Middle Ages, being conversant in both the Investiture controversy and Scholasticism. But those are harder to come by. So, for the later eras of history, one is left with self-made generalists. Curious people who work to strengthen themselves in the areas in which they are deficient, such as this lowly philosophy major who has had to work hard for the last 16 years to become proficient at teaching literature and history.

  3. I agree with the diagnosis but not the solution. The mistake is in teaching “subjects” of recent vintage instead of the seven liberal arts.

    That isn’t as dumb as it sounds, but the basic idea of the classical curriculum was that you were focused more on the intellectual virtues than on an agreed upon collection of information arranged into a “scope and sequence” that comprehensively integrates all of reality in a four or six year program or maybe even in a thrice repeated cycle.

    When children learn literature they are learning what the classical tradition called grammar: they are learning to interpret texts.

    When they learn history, they are not learning something the classical tradition knew about. I would go so far as to say, they are almost always learning an ideology, left or right, when what they ought to be learning is how to deliberate.

    In the classical tradition that was called rhetoric.

    This would not be hard to fix, but it would take courage, planning how to explain what you are doing to the administration and the state, and patience as you implement something implied in your promotional materials but not familiar to those who read your documents.

    Let me hasten to add fervently that the liberal arts are not general studies but disciplines that enable the study of things like literature and history (and the natural sciences). Offering classes on history and literature forces us to contort the nature of both – and to undercut what they could and should be learning first. Or else it gives us an opportunity to reframe them in such a way as to actually teach what they student can and should learn first.

    And finally: we must not mistake overlapping for integrating. One is a mixture, the other a compound.

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