History As Archeological Fun

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Part of the School of History.



As a study of the past, history should engage students and propel them back into time. Reading books is informative, certainly, but not anywhere as engaging as having students actually handle and assess source documents from the historical past. Like archeologists evaluating ancient pottery pieces or architectural remains to explain long-past civilizations, contemporary grade school and university students can know the excitement and personal involvement of learning history from primary sources.

To that end, I have written two enhanced e-books and filled them with obscure short films and other artifacts from U.S. popular culture to illustrate the pedagogic methodology of this stye of learning. The books are THE HISTORY SHOPPE and its sequel THE CODE OF CLIO. They are both available TOTALLY FREE OF CHARGE online at www.jfredmacdonald.com.



Scott Tennyson is a brainiac high school freshman. His memory for dates and facts have made him the King of All History at his his school. But when he muffs a multiple-choice exam he is crest-fallen. On the way home that day he accidently comes upon a store called The History Shoppe which is run by Professor Petros Papadopoulous, a wise old Professor of History, Emeritus.

The Professor, who likes to be called Dr. Pop, embodies the archeological method of learning and enjoying history. His first charge to the fascinated young student is to take home an old coin and return in one week prepared to tell everything he can about that artifact. The coin is from France in 1791, and explaining its provenance takes Scott back into the history of the French Revolution. He explores the inscriptions and the iconography on the coin. To understand it better, he must read all he can about the context in which the coin appeared and was circulated. Compared to a class assignment of "Read a book about the French Revolution," this archeological approach seduces the student into the experience. It forces him or her to invest energy in understanding the past, and from this intimacy comes love for the subject matter.

The media sociologist Marshall McLuhan argued that in the Age of Mass Media--which lures viewers and listeners into imagery as participants--educators must replace "the Package" with "the Probe." The archeological approach to learning history is pure Probe. Supplementary books and articles are all Package. Before educators can bring their students to the fuller printed Package, they must grab their charges' attention and commitment. The Probe is an irresistable learning mechanism. It speaks the media-influenced language of the modern American generation. Importantly, it makes converts the uninformed student into a historian.

The most compelling apparatus at the History Shoppe is the Clio Machine. This is Dr. Pop's special transpoter gizmo that allows a student to enter a vintage film and ask questions of the production crew as the movie is actually being shown. This, of course, is a metaphor for intensive analytical study. But by plunging the student into historical film, it draws him or her into a familiar language (film) and a style of criticism (critiquing what you see) that is not immediately intimidating. On the contrary, it is comforting because the student cannot be wrong, just more or less accurate, more or less informed. At this juncture, the educator can encourage further exploration by guiding the student to books and appropriate internet sites.

Importantly, the films in both books are all from the periods under study. They are not composite history films about an old subject. To qualify as true artifacts, they must be from the times being studied. In this case the films are primarily from the Great Depression and the Cold War. They touch upon such matters as the New Deal, racism in American society, the Atomic Bomb scare, American advertising, and the middle-class lifestyle of the late 1950s.



In the sequel e-book, Scott Tennyson has just finished his Junior year in high school and has been invited to State University for a two-week Young Scholars retreat. Here, he is one of four students chosen to represent Young History. Among the other groups are Young Science, Young Foreign Languages, Young Military Science, and Young Art. But Scott is so precocious for his group--this thanks to Dr. Papadopoulos and his History Shoppe experiences--that he is given the task of organizing a film and sound-recording collection donated recently to the university museum. This turns Scott into an acolyte of his mentor, now offering the Probe methodology to his peers. This climaxes with his appearance before Young Art to argue the question of whether or not Art is historically relevant to its time of creation. This he accomplishes with a blend of vintage postage stamps and rare historic films.



For the educator interested in adopting this teaching methodology, there is an abundance of rare films online free of charge. As well as the materials in The History Shoppe and The Code of Clio, visit the plethora of film artifacts easily downloaded free of charge at Rick Prelinger's wonderful Internet Archive: www.archive.org And at www.jfredmacdonald.com you will find that many of the TV and radio history books found there are, themselves, filled with vintage films that can be downloaded and profitably used in history classes.

Of course, this archeological approach can utilize paper resources. Old magazines, for example, can be distributed to students for analysis. Here, Life and Look and Collier's are particularly rich primary sources for the United States in the period 1930s-1970s.

In a similar vein, students can become archeologists/historians by interviewing older people about social and cultural patterns when they were growing up. Such an interview can be as elaborate as the student and educator wish it to be: ranging from simple written notes, to audio recording, to video recording and posting on the internet. Not only is this a useful introduction to oral history, it involves the student directly in the methodology of the professional historian.

Dr. J. Fred MacDonald, Professor of History, Emeritus Northeastern Illinois University/ B.A. and M.A. in History, University of California, Berkeley/ Ph.D. in History, UCLA