What is the Purpose of Teaching History? (Educational Insights from Hogwarts, Part 7)

Hogwarts castle
Hogwarts castle
We are now on to the second half of our 10 part series on Educational Insights from Hogwarts. If you missed the first five, check them out at the links below.

Part 1: Lessons from Dolores, Dumbledore, and More

Part 2: Private Christian Schools and Government Involvement

Part 3: Meaningful Teacher Evaluations

Part 4: Student Organizations

Part 5: On the Integration of Subjects/Arts

Part 6: Censorship

At Hogwarts, History of Magic is taught by Professor Binns, a ghost who drones on and on with monotone lectures about goblin rebellions, giant wars, and other “facts” of magical history and seems surprised to find students in front of him when disruptions occur. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rowling describes Binns as follows: “…the only teacher present when they entered was Professor Binns, floating an inch or so above his chair as usual and preparing to continue his monotonous drone on giant wars. Harry did not even attempt to follow what he was saying today…He glanced around at Professor Binns who continued to read his notes, serenely unaware that the class’s attention was even less focused upon him than usual” (355-356).

Although Hermione will diligently take notes, few others seem to be aware of any reason for the class and pay little attention. During the course of the novels, however, Rowling weaves in several examples of how the characters would be or are served by knowing history. Thus, Rowling herself does not seem to dismiss history; rather, she portrays in stark terms how many history teachers view their task and how students likewise respond. Simply stated, the results are not pleasant.

Instead, history has a vital role to play in a classical education, especially a Christian classical education, but it must be done well.  In his excellent book The Landscape of History, historian and author John Lewis Gaddis writes regarding the historian’s task:

“It is to interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future, but to do so without suspending the capacity to assess the particular circumstances in which one might have to act, or the relevance of past actions to them. To accumulate experience is not to endorse its automatic application, for part of the historical consciousness is the ability to see differences as well as similarities.”

The type of history that Professor Binns teaches has little ability to help students assess particular circumstances in which they may be called upon to act. Instead, he has made history a mere memorization of seemingly insignificant facts. Gaddis would certainly disagree with Professor Binns’ approach to history when he argues that historians are not, despite common belief, meant to be “dispassionate chroniclers of events” but should instead bring a “sense of excitement and wonder” to the task of doing history. Our students, as would the students of Hogwarts, would be much better served if learning history brought about a sense of wonder and excitement that led them to become more virtuous and better able to act in their particular context in the present.

 

 

1 John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10-11.

2 Ibid., 16.

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