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Education

Panel Explores How To Make History Vital To 21st Century Education

The University of Oklahoma's 2014 Teach-In on the Civil War panel discussion "Freedom in America and Civic Education" (L-R): Kyle Harper, Ronald White, Allen Guelzo, Joan Waugh, Ed Ayers, Vernon Burton, John Wilmerding.
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During the University of Oklahoma’s 2014 “Teach-In on the Civil War,” each speaker gathered on stage for a panel discussion about Freedom in America and Civic Education, moderated by OU interim provost and director of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage Kyle Harper.

Richmond University President Ed Ayers says in order to ensure its vitality, the humanities need to play offense, rather than defense.

“What is history? Everything that happened before today,” Ayers says. “How can that be useless and boring, if we would actually imagine all the ways that history can engage us?”

Vernon Burton, a professor of history and computer science at Clemson University and the author of The Age of Lincoln, says the United States is undergoing transformation similar to the shift from an agrarian, yeoman farmer populace to an industrial society 150 years ago.

“We are now moving from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy,” Burton says. “We've got to realize that in terms of preparing the population if we're going to have jobs.”

UCLA historian Joan Waugh says history is first and foremost a story, so in order to make courses compelling, educators need to make it exciting and important to their lives.

“However you draw students in – by playing a song, by having stunning visuals – what you’re doing to them is shaping their lives, you’re shaping their mental processes,” Waugh says. “It’s critical thinking. It's being able to look at different points of view and see the good things in all of them, and see the flaws in all of them, and then come to a decision yourself. That is what we're really teaching them.”

And New York Times bestselling author Ronald White says reaching younger students needs to come much earlier in life.

“They're being asked the wrong question. It's the vocational question.” White says. “Humanities is asking a larger question, and we need to implement that question in their consciousness, and that has to happen before their college years.”

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