Book review: Mike Maxwell, Future-Focused History Teaching (Maxwell Learning, 2018)

Mike Maxwell is reader of this blog and a fellow historian who sent me a copy of his new book.

The general message of the book is that history education, specifically at the high school level, is a mess. The first 55 pages of the book diagnose the problem, which is that history education does not seem to have a greater purpose than simply presenting facts to students. History education, Maxwell says, is stuck in 3rd grade.  The second part of the book proposes a partial solution to the problem. All disciplines teach factual knowledge, Maxwell notes, but this knowledge is usually intended to build up to or impart general principles. History, as it is taught, however, does not include general principles. Nevertheless, Maxwell thinks that the subject does have general principles that can and should be taught. The final third of the book consists of observations about pedagogy that may be useful but seem disconnected from the earlier sections of the book

First, let me summarize some the opening section. Maxwell is an insightful critic of the history discipline and he writes well. He targets the history textbook: “The act of opening the book releases soporific vapors rendolent of the old and the boring, which render futile any attempt at concentration” (6) and the testing industry, which he says is part of a profitable ”educational-industrial” complex. With an example of a difficult question from a Virginia Department of Education history exam, Maxwell seems to confirm Sam Wineburg’s view that exams are rigged against students.

Although Maxwell identifies problems with government and market impacts on history education, he says the blame for the discipline’s failures lies mostly with history educators. Two problems of history education are the tendency to present superficial facts and the difficultly of presenting history in a useful, memorable scale. The AP history tests solves the first problem by asking questions of historical interpretation, but the result is that students have to study an impossible amount of history, stretched over a variety of timescales and geographies. This content inflation hides the superficiality, but results mostly in pretend learning. The natural state of history education remains, then, in trivia.

Maxwell is also critical of replacing the history-as-trivia method (Bucket O’Facts method) with an emphasis on historical thinking or critical thinking skills. Only those who wish to become professional historians, he thinks, actually need to know such historical research, interpretation, and writing skills. A focus on historical thinking leaves many students without any factual knowledge of the past. And many students are not able to learn from historical thinking exercises.

The partial solution to all of this trouble with history education then is to teach general principles of history. Although it takes some time for Maxwell to get to this point, he is clear that these general principles of history are not laws of history in the sense that they determine historical action. The general principles he presents are more on the level of wisdom: reflections on knowledge gathered from observation and consideration.

Here are a few of his general principles (followed by my criticisms in parentheses).

  • Major cultures and empires have followed a general pattern of growth, flowering and decline throughout history. (I’m not sure if this qualifies as a general principles, a tautology, or something else.  Without a pattern of growth and flowering, something could not be called a major culture or empire. The fact that they decline seems inevitable, but this decline can be on any time-scale, and may be seen as an evolution or instant demise rather than a decline).
  • Humans tend to position themselves along a political spectrum that ranges from conservative to liberal. (Are tendencies principles? They may be, but an observation like this can only be true at the lowest level of resolution. It also seems rather presentist. Would a person from the 15th century agree with this view?)
  • Humans manifest an instinct to exercise control over others.
  • Humans exhibit a propensity to fear, dislike, kill, subjugate, and discriminate against people from groups different than their own.
  • Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control

(principles 3, 4, 5, seem to me to be too general and too obvious. I think they are right, but doesn’t everyone already know these things, and how will the historian bring these principles into classroom lessons?  Will any students have an “aha” moment when told these things?)

  • Many or most military invasions of distant lands fail over the long term.

(And some don’t. How do we apply this knowledge?  The military invasion metaphor for historical laws is an old one, but it has been critcized repeatable. I’m too lazy to go to my shelves at the moment, but one historian has a long section on the Franco-Prussian War, and the fact that the lessons the Germans learned their were not useful in their next invasion of France, since technology and circumstances had changed.)

Maxwell gives a bunch more examples in an appendix. I think it is useful for history teachers to think about such principles, but I’m not sure yet how it would shape their teaching, and if students would actually get much from being told about such principles. I see these not as principles, but as loose observations. Some of them are purely relative: “Democracy can be a difficult system of government to maintain.”  As an economist might respond: “compared to what?”  Some of these principles would find quite a bit of opposition: “Economies are inherently unstable and can careen out of control if not carefully monitored.” A good number of economists think the economy would be much more stable if the government would interfere in it less.

So, my general observations about this book is that Maxwell’s criticisms of history education are correct, and they are definitely a useful contribution. My second observation (and I may be wrong) is that his solution doesn’t seem workable, at least not for all teachers, and I would like to know more about how it would be implemented in practice.  Yet, at the same time, I think he brings up some important points. History teachers should want to follow his advice to think about bigger meaning and purpose of what they are teaching, but it will be difficult, I think, for them to come up with general guiding principles that are neither obvious and therefore not useful, or only relative tendencies subject to disagreement.

In the end, I think Maxwell has hit on another reason for justifying history education. One page 6, he writes: “One day it occurred to me that knights must have come before George Washington, and he must have come before cowboys. The past wasn’t just a jumble of events, after all – it followed a sequential pattern, it could be intelligible.” (6)   History helps us organize our world. It gives us confidence, it gives us identity, it inspires us. It won’t inspire everyone or give everyone the same lessons. Some will see patterns in history that others don’t. We will disagree about interpretation, but I think that is okay.

One thing that strikes me is that this book, apparently self-published by a retired high school history teacher, is of roughly equal quality to books published by Professors of history and education who publish with large academic presses.  Maxwell is not as insightful as say Sam Wineburg, but then again, who is?  But his prose is almost as readable.

So, what is the difference (besides the status of the author) between this book and those that are marketed by large academic presses?  I would suggest three things: the title, the lack of a clear promising (although not necessarily convincing thesis) and, to some extent, organization.  As I’ve noted in reviews of other books, publishers don’t sell books so much as they sell titles, and the two words are not exactly synonymous. Titles for best-selling history books promise to uncover lost, hidden, or untold histories. These titles must not include words that a general reader is unfamiliar with. The title itself tends to be short and catchy, and the subtitle gives a description of the true contents of the book.  Second, books with larger presses suggest a clear answer, even if they ultimately don’t deliver one. Finally, such books are organized in pretty standard way. They open with a vignette, and most of the good stuff in the books comes in chapter 1, which is the chapter a potential reader is most likely to leaf through when considering purchasing the book. Then, an editor removes most of the extraneous material that one tries in vain to tack on to the end of the book to make the editor’s length requirements. The point is, in my opinion, an editor at a major press, with just a few recommendations for revisions, could have easily turned this present book into one of their marketed titles.

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