Dec 16, 2010

Teaching backwards

I wonder if cultural studies history shouldn't be done in reverse.

I know it's a slightly or more-than-slightly crazy idea, but teaching cultural history in chronological order (i.e. the normal way) has a couple of problems.

One is just practical: the further back one goes, the harder it is for the students to read. Beginning at the beginning means starting with the least familiar material. Classes already tend to be harder in the beginning and get easier as the class goes on -- as everyone becomes more familiar with the questions being asked, the methodological maneuvers, etc. -- and chronology exacerbates that.

The second is a little more theoretical: teaching in chronological order lends itself to presentism. The past is taught as a way of explaining the present, thought of only in how it explains the present, and it is warped in weird ways. Undue weight is given to some facets, and others are ignored. The present is given a kind of gravitational priority, made the center of the solar system around which everything else orbits. It's the logical and fated outcome of the past, and the past is seen as inextricably leading to the present (and nothing more).

A third but related problem is the tendency to mistake chronology for something more than it is. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, etc. Teachers and students both do this. We just kind of fall into it, assuming the conditions and causes suggested by chronology, instead of actually working them out.

It occurs to me, too, that it's really not all that unusual to learn history backwards. Don't we always know about our out time before what came before? Don't we know or understand what's happened in living memory before we go back "to the beginning," and know our era or age before the ones that came before?

Teaching backwards might be easier, actually, and might offer a bit of correction to some of the presentism problems. At very least, even if it isn't a fix for presentism and history-as-fate, it might make it better just by making it more explicit, which would mean we could try to be careful about it.

Would it be better to teach cultural studies history backwards, beside the fact that it's crazy?