College teachers often complain about students who seem bored. This can be about their work ethic: “Nobody does the reading,” you often hear, or “They just don’t want to study.” But sometimes frustrated professors mean something deeper. They believe their students are morally wrong not to take more of an interest in the academic subjects themselves.
I’ve complained like this too—although not so much (I hope) lately. Usually I whine about a supposed lack of “curiosity.” Some of my colleagues make much harsher assessments.
Our impulse to complain is understandable. We invest a lot of labor and emotion in the subjects we teach. We believe these subjects are important. Indeed, many of us probably endorse what John Erskine called a “moral obligation to be intelligent”—a duty to take an interest in how the world works:
[W]e do not insist that the more saintly of two surgeons shall operate on us for appendicitis. But … an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; [so] it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and … any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious.
We flatter ourselves that taking our courses is necessary to understand the world, and thus to know right from wrong. (Occasionally, we may even be correct.) As pragmatists, we view a lack of educational interest as a moral failing.
However, if we’re going to be pragmatic about the morality of knowledge, then we need to direct the pragmatic gaze at ourselves, too. We know people can’t simply will themselves into being interested in what we teach. After all, each of us could name topics that other people find both fascinating and important but that simply don’t interest us. We know perfectly well what it’s like to be bored. Let’s extend a little empathy to our students for the sake of ethical and useful teaching.
What can we do to make our courses more interesting to students? Three routine practices seem crucial for any history course:
1. Stating the stakes.
We already understand why our courses matter. Our students typically don’t, and that makes sense. Most of the time, it’s as unreasonable to expect students to know the stakes of a course already as to expect them to know the content. Spelling it out is our responsibility. We should try to express our implicit questions explicitly. We should sell our topics as something important—every time.
2. Being specific.
Much of a history education is about making generalizations. But no generalization will make sense or engage the imagination unless we can illustrate what it means specifically. We need to discuss examples. We should try to talk about individual people, at least occasionally. We should quote directly from them when we can.
3. Creating suspense.
Most historians, truth be told, are not world-class storytellers. But we know the value of simply dropping a hint about what’s going to happen later in a narrative. We know how much more interesting a story is when its characters face a dilemma. We know better than to give away a punchline too early when telling a joke. When we keep this basic intuitive knowledge in mind, we can make even the dullest topics more interesting.
Above all, what will keep history fascinating for students is the awareness that we could be telling a different story. The world could have turned out differently. That is precisely what makes our work as historians important in the first place.
To fulfill our moral obligations as teachers, it’s not enough to be correct. We need to strive, as much as is within our power, to be interesting as well.
Image: Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Dorfschule, Jobs als Schulmeister (1845), Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, via Wikimedia Commons