False, Dry, Boring Ideas about History

Do we have to memorize a lot of dates and names???  [This is the most frequently asked question in history courses, especially on the first day of class.]   For some folks the goal of historical study is to learn the 50-100-200(?) most important facts about a portion of the past.  This approach suggests that knowing a number of terms is good-in-itself even if you don't learn why the events are important [almost in the same way as you were once told to "eat your vegetables without hearing first about the value of vitamins, minerals, etc.]. 

People might ask, "Does Biafra make this list of importance?"   One answer, of course, is that it does make the list in Nigeria.  But this approach to history--the admonition to learn the most important factoids--ignores the issue of what makes an event or trend "important."  Why shouldn't we study the ramifications of an event in Africa's most heavily populated nation?  The Biafra episode combines a number of issues into a single moment:  the impact of imperialism; the difficulties of starting a nation; and the dynamics of ethnic diversity.  The list could go on.   And we agreed (did we not?) that the human misery accompanying events like Biafra around the world are upsetting if not intolerable.  [I use this phrasing because there is a school of thought in the study of foreign policy that holds national security interests rather than human concern should guide the foreign policies of nations.  It is a valid policy issue.]

Furthermore, do you really think that history majors have no life other than to sit around and mention stray names and dates to one another?  If you don't think that would be interesting, why do you think historians might find it interesting?   History (or at least interesting history) is the attempt to understand past events, often, as with this unit, to gain insight into the dynamics of what is going on in the world today.  And one of the goals of historical study in survey courses is to get students to develop the "habit of mind" of incorporating an understanding of the past into their understanding of the present.  In short to know history as a lens on the past.