Teaching History Beyond Names and Dates


Our history tests are littered with questions like this:

Alexander the Great’s decisive victory at the Battle of _____ led to his conquest of the Persian Empire.
  1. Bucephalas
  2. Chickamauga
  3. Gaugamela
  4. Artaxerxes

Let’s be honest—who cares? In twenty years, will it make any difference to my students if they know the name of the decisive battle that led to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire? (The answer is Gaugamela, in case you’re wondering. And yes, I had to look it up.)

On the other hand, “What empire did Alexander the Great conquer?” is a good test question. That’s something students really ought to know. Even better is a question like this:

Alexander the Great’s conquests led to _____.
  1. a thousand years of Greek rule in the Middle East.
  2. the spread of Greek culture throughout the eastern Mediterranean region.
  3. the First Defenestration of Prague and the Hussite Wars.
  4. the establishment of the Achaemenid dynasty.

This question gets to the heart of Alexander’s significance. By spreading Greek culture throughout the eastern Mediterranean region, he profoundly affected the course of Western civilization. If students remember anything about Alexander, it should be this.

The purpose of teaching history is to help students understand the world so they can more effectively serve God in it. Our plans for our students’ learning must be measured against this purpose. If it doesn’t contribute to students’ understanding of the world, there’s no sense in wasting time and energy on it.

So don’t worry about getting students to memorize every bold term in the history textbook. Instead, teach them how the world got to be the way it is. This teaching will include many of those bold terms, but they must be part of the story and not substitutes for the story. In their proper context, the names and dates of history organize and even enrich the subject. In isolation, they are meaningless and dull.

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