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.

3 comments

  1. MIKE MAXWELL RESPONDS TO MICHAEL DOUMA
    AND DEFENDS GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF HISTORY.

    My Dear Michael-
    Thank you for your review of my book, “Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning.” And thank you for your willingness to engage in a dialogue that might permit us to explore our respective views about history education—you from the perspective of a historian and history professor and me from the perspective of a high school history teacher.

    In addition to our mutual interest in historical learning, we share the same first name, which could cause confusion should any readers wish to follow this discussion. They can distinguish between us by noting that the professor/historian identifies himself as Michael, while the school teacher goes by Mike.

    Your review of my book offered a number of kind observations (for which I thank you once more), but it also questioned the book’s concept of general principles of historical knowledge. I would like to take this opportunity to address your concerns in the hope that further explanation might make my positions clearer and possibly more persuasive. Consequently, the remainder of this message will focus on the idea of general principles of historical knowledge.

    My book might be somewhat unusual in the field of history education in that it takes a holistic view of historical learning as opposed to treating the subject as a stand-alone topic. The book looks at history education in relation to other school subjects, in relation to the needs of society, and in relation to findings from cognitive science about the nature of effective learning. Such a holistic view may yield insights that would not be apparent when considering history education in isolation.

    One of the central insights of my book is that school subjects other than history—and virtually all productive human endeavors—are based on identifying and imparting general principles of how the world works, principles such as addition in mathematics, grammar in language, and gravity in science. Such general principles are the king of knowledge because they possess the extraordinary capacity to carry knowledge of past experience across the boundary of time into the future where this knowledge can help people to function effectively in their lives. Furthermore, general principles of knowledge are universal; they have proved valid in the past, they remain valid in the present, and they are likely to remain valid into the future anywhere that humans are present.

    History education is unique among school subjects in that it does not recognize general principles derived from its subject matter. They aren’t found where principles of intellectual disciplines are normally identified: in textbooks, curriculum standards, and formal programs of instruction such as Advanced Placement courses.

    However, the idea that history—like other disciplines—possesses general principles of knowledge dates back at least twenty-four centuries to the time of Thucydides in Greece and Sun Tzu in China. It was reaffirmed during the Renaissance by such eminent thinkers as Niccolò Machiavelli and David Hume. Nonetheless, such principles are missing from the official curriculum taught to students in our schools and colleges.

    Formal education exists to impart knowledge useful in the future. Without general principles applicable to the future, history is unable to fulfill the purpose of education the way other school subjects do, and society has no practical means to learn from history—a situation that has no doubt contributed to the sad decline of history in American education over the past six decades. As we know, history is no longer considered by many to be a core school subject.

    My book proposes that history education can become more relevant to students and society—and the decline of history education can be arrested—if historical learning were to once again include general principles of history along with three other kinds of historical knowledge that are also relevant to the future: foundational concepts of history and geography, events with continuing effect, and a big picture of human development through time.

    The fact that history education lacks general principles of knowledge may be a reality that historians and history educators would prefer not to notice because it places them in a difficult position. To acknowledge this reality is to admit that historical learning lacks the fundamental component of other intellectual disciplines—the component that makes those disciplines useful in life.

    History education could, of course, overcome this handicap by adopting its own general principles of knowledge. But to do so would require a major shift in the status quo, one that embraces an idea heretofore entirely foreign to the modern conception of history education. Under these circumstances, history professionals may reflexively seek various means to discredit the idea of general principles of history, so that this unwelcome bogeyman may be elbowed aside, discounted, and ignored.

    Michael, in your review of my book, you accept the validity of principles of historical knowledge (at least some of them), and you suggest that history teachers think about such principles, but you find four ways to call into question the concept of general principles of history: You question the appropriateness of the term, observe that such principles are subject to disagreement, wonder if they can be effectively taught, and imply that they do not need to be taught because they are so obvious that everyone already knows them.

    As regards my use of the term general principles of history, I don’t really care if such concepts are termed general principles of history, lessons of history, recurring patterns in history, historical analogues, or historical tendencies so long as students and society become aware of them—so that this important knowledge is available to inform future judgment in the crucial realm of human affairs.

    You are clearly correct when you say that general principles of history are subject to disagreement; they have the character of historical questions open to debate, rather than settled facts. My book suggests, “Every principle of history proposed by student or teacher is subjected to scrutiny.” General principles of history are tendencies like the tendency of cigarettes to cause lung cancer, a tendency that was debated in American society before health warnings were added to cigarette packs. Is society better off knowing about the tendency of cigarettes to cause lung cancer, or would we be better off remaining ignorant of this tendency? Why would we want students and society to remain ignorant of powerful tendencies in history such as “people resist being controlled by outsiders” and “many or most military invasions of distant lands fail over the long term”? Shouldn’t society debate such historical tendencies before deciding whether or not to launch invasions of foreign lands?

    As regards the question of how to teach general principles of history, I can’t supply a good answer because I was not aware of such principles when I was a classroom teacher, and they aren’t currently taught in our schools. The first task, it seems to me, is not to determine how to teach general principles of history, but to make history educators aware that such principles exist (one of the purposes of my book). The next task would be to establish the objective of bringing general principles of history into classrooms on a pilot basis. This is where they can be tested, validated, and refined; this is where we can figure out how best to teach them. In 1961, nobody knew how to land humans on the moon, but after President Kennedy established this objective, Americans figured out how to accomplish it. First comes the goal; then comes the means. I doubt that teaching general principles of history will prove more daunting than rocket science.

    As regards the obviousness of general principles of history, perhaps people in your circle, Michael, are aware of many of these principles on some level. But speaking as a high school teacher and college graduate, I can assure you that not every high school and college student is aware of the general principles of history mentioned in my book. I wasn’t aware of them myself until I wrote the book. If general principles of historical knowledge are as widely known in our culture as you suggest, why are they nowhere to be found in the places where general principles of other intellectual disciplines are identified?

    It’s not clear to me why you would suggest that teachers think about general principles of history, but you would apparently deny such knowledge to the teacher’s students. For instruction to be effective, it must be explicit. Students don’t arrive in our classrooms already in possession of a sophisticated understanding of the workings of the world, nor can we expect students to pull historical concepts out of the air or to divine them through osmosis. If we want students to think about important principles of history, we will need to introduce students to important principles of history.

    History professionals who wish to maintain the status quo in history education may succeed in elbowing aside any serious consideration of adding general principles to the history curriculum, but this will do nothing to stop the decline of history education. To stop the decline, history educators will have to attack the fundamental problem at the heart of history education: it’s lack of knowledge relevant to peoples’ lives.

    Which will be easier to bear over the long term: the continuing decline and possible demise of history education, or an adjustment to the status quo that supplies knowledge relevant to the future? Any other proposed fix is merely tinkering around the edges.

    Thanks again for offering me an opportunity to respond to your review, and best wishes
    -Mike

    P.S. To see another recent perspective on principles of history—this from Jim Smith, a former national history teacher of the year—please visit https://www.classicaltyro.com/blog/files/future-focused-history-teaching.html

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  2. Thanks Mike,

    I appreciate your response.

    My main criticism about the “general principles approach” is we can’t really agree on what the general principles are, and the ones that we do agree on tend to be so basic and obvious that we can’t use them to teach anything that others don’t already know. Now, of course, there are some principles that most people agree on, and which aren’t entirely obvious, and that therefore might be useful to teach some important historical lessons.

    If the point of your book is that history teachers should always keep the bigger picture or some principle in mind, then it would be difficult to disagree. But I’m less certain that we can structure history lessons completely around principles when sometimes it is not clear what principle the historical lesson teaches, or even if students would agree with the lesson that you draw from the historical data.

    I’m more of skeptic than you, I think, about what history actually teaches. I think history can teach us how to think, and can serve as a kind of testing ground for investigating various principles, but I don’t think we can derive ultimate principles from observation. It’s sort of the old problem that philosophers like David Hume wrestled with.

    Your principles approach reminds me a bit of sunday school lessons. As a kid growing up in the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod, I received a full education of religious principles through biblical lessons. Each story we learned was not so that we could know the facts about the past, but so that we would know of the purpose and meaning of the Christian story. The principles approach leads to a different kind of teaching, and as the history of arguing over religion shows, it doesn’t lead to consensus about meaning or interpretation.

    In my last few paragraphs of my review I was trying to get across the idea that there are many good books out there (and, honestly, yours included), but why do some get published with top presses, and others do not? I suggest that top presses prefer of course to publish books from people with fancy professor titles, but I also suggest that there is a basic form that books of this kind are supposed to take if they want to make it with the top presses. It seems to me that if authors deviate from a sort of standard template of how to write a popular book (journalist introduction, big claims not necessarily well defended, etc) then the press is not interested.

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  3. Hello again Michael-
    Thanks for your response to my response.

    I believe your latest message reiterates some of the points made in your original book review—that there is no present consensus on valid principles of history, and that some of these principles may be obvious, and so on. As I addressed these issues in my previous message, I will not address them again here.

    What strikes me about your response is not how much we disagree about the concept of general principles of history, but how much we agree.

    Item: You say, “there are some principles that most people agree on, and which aren’t entirely obvious, and that therefore might be useful to teach some important historical lessons.” With this sentence, I think you provide a credible summary of my position on the teaching of general principles of history.

    Item: You say you are not certain “that we can structure history lessons completely around principles” of history. Again, I agree, which is why my book identifies three other kinds of historical knowledge that are also relevant to the future and are therefore appropriate for educational purposes: foundational concepts of history and geography, events with continuing effect, and a big picture of human development though time.

    I must confess that I’m not sure I get the point of the story about your upbringing in the Lutheran church, but I certainly agree when you say, “The principles approach leads to a different kind of teaching.” This is the essential point I hope to make—that we can refocus historical learning away from isolated events of the past and orient it toward knowledge useful to people living their lives in the present and future.

    In your last paragraph, you seem to feel sorry for me that my book was not published by a major commercial publishing house. That was never my intent. I’m a do-it-yourself kind of guy, whether it’s a matter of building my own house or publishing my own book including the graphic work and typesetting.

    Plus, I didn’t think any educational publisher would be interested in my book, since its unconventional ideas could be expected to alienate nearly everyone in the book’s intended audience: history teachers and academic historians. But I’m not a college professor who must publish or perish, and I am too old to be promoting my career, so I am free to say whatever I believe to be true, no matter whom it might offend (although I would prefer not to offend anyone). In any case, it’s gratifying that you find the quality of my book and the writing to be more or less on a par with that of large academic presses and college professors (although I might have been hoping for a comparison to Darwin or Tolstoy.)
    Cheers,
    -Mike

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