The way we teach tough lessons affects what students can learn from them. // dcdebs

history lessons

How we teach the past can be a contentious issue, especially around sensitive subjects like race, gender, and genocide. But the debates are high-stakes, as history classes play a vital role in the construction of collective memory, and they demonstrate the powerful emotion elicited by what we do—and don’t—teach. In other words, as Chana Teeger argued in a recent article in the American Journal of Sociology, it’s not just the content of history curricula that matters but also the emotions elicited by these lessons.

Drawing from ethnographic observations among students in two racially and socioeconomically diverse South African high schools, Teeger sets out to answer a perplexing question: Why were students captivated by lessons about the Holocaust but bored by lessons about South Africa’s apartheid regime? Supplementing classroom observations with analyses of curricular documents, classroom materials, and interviews with history educators, Teeger found that the Holocaust was framed as a causal narrative in which students were encouraged to ask “why” questions. In contrast, lessons on apartheid primarily comprised lists of repealed laws and past events. The issues of racism, economic exploitation, and settler colonialism, which are crucial for contextualizing apartheid and continue to be relevant for understanding contemporary racial inequality, were conspicuously absent.

Teeger’s findings reveal “how a past can be remembered but not engaged.” The way apartheid was taught in this context deterred students from exploring why historical racist atrocities were allowed to occur and how they continue to impact the present. Students’ boredom, which arose out of the detached way the apartheid lessons were imparted, enabled them to distance themselves emotionally from histories in which their own families were implicated. This emotional disengagement, then, serves as an “emotional defense of a racist status quo,” avoiding the discomfort of confronting the racist past and its contemporary implications.