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The Relevance of History

By Russ Williams

History is an eminently practical subject. It is an excellent way to learn logical thinking and argumentation. Working as a historian is a way to learn both about yourself and those around you: to really know someone is to know their history. And to be bonded or connected with another person is to have a “history” together. Being a historian teaches you to find connections. As a teacher, I guide my students as they learn to use the past to talk about their present. 

The names and events and the developments my students learn about in their study of history gives them an advantage in debates and discussions they will have at the dinner table and in the dorm room. This knowledge helps them to put the dizzying 24-hour news cycle in context and can even slow that cycle down as they take a longer view. A grounding in history gives students confidence and a sense of authority as the changes unfolding before them no longer seem so random or unpredictable. Studying history provides clarity to the present. 

I think the last decade of my teaching career has been the most fruitful for me personally. I have been privileged to live in places with histories - some triumphant, and many tragic. Through most of it, I taught what you would call survey courses, yearlong classes that study hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, in an ordered, systematic way. You can always view history through at least two lenses. Through a chronological lens we study developments in roughly the order in which they occurred but we also use a thematic lens, revisiting the same big ideas across time periods. In 2016 I committed to teaching history through a third lens as well, a local lens. 


Learning History Through a Local Lens


Let me explain how a local lens works in a history class. In 2016, I taught in Memphis, Tennessee and this region requires a deep study of slavery, of the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. I decided to put Memphis and its people at the center of our learning. Some of my students had deep Tennessee roots and others were recent transplants - regardless, the connections we made were richer, more personal and more significant. Whether we studied efforts to map Jim Crow era lynchings or learned that Japanese-Americans were interned less than an afternoon’s drive away in Jerome, Arkansas, seeing history through a local lens helped us all talk about the present more precisely but also with more humility. 

Now, I find myself in a remarkable country with its own, complicated past. I am often challenged, both directly and indirectly, to justify teaching American history to a largely Korean audience. Beyond the imperative that most of my students will likely spend some of their formative years as young adults in the US, I have also come to realize that the same mixed bag of triumphs and tragedies that mark American history have analogs in Korea’s history. It is true that Koreans can look back into the past more than a millennium while Americans still have only a few centuries. On the other hand Koreans, like Americans, have always wrestled with the meaning and power of race, with competing visions and interpretations of what it means to have a just and equitable society, and more recently, with the problems and abundance that has come with rapid industrialization and urbanization. 

High school history courses, by their very design, are merely introductions to wider study. My hope is that my students are better prepared to ask the right questions, challenging existing narratives and interpretations from places of respectful confidence. I want my students ready for those university dorm room debates and senior-level seminars. And then, given the scope of their knowledge and thought, I hope my students meet unexpected opportunities, as forces for change in their communities.  

Russ Williams teaches World History, US History, AP US History, and serves as the social sciences department head at KIS.