The teaching of history is, or at least definitely should be, fundamental to any culture and its education systems. This may be truer for countries like South Korea with a difficult history of wars, conflicts and occupation. How the past is remembered is a matter of building national pride, instilling justice and defining a sense of identity.
In a free democracy with rule of law, the advantage for history studies is that many voices can contribute to the history curriculum. Various perspectives and differing judgments are free to compete in the marketplace of ideas. By definition, these perspectives will not align neatly and, in fact, may clash.
That is what we are seeing in South Korea today: After decades of politically unencumbered thought, past events are being viewed in increasingly divergent ways. While conflict is not always pretty to look at, it is far better to have the free expression of ideas than the suppression of ideas.
The teaching of history is a new endeavor for me. It happened by chance. A department of English linguistics course, “Media English,” was assigned to me a few semesters ago. It’s a real romp: we cover Adam Sandler songs, the zombie TV show “The Walking Dead,” movie clips starring great actors such as Gregory Peck and Al Pacino, and my personal favorite: HBO’s sublime series “The Wire.” More culturally and historically significant, we also look at important speeches by political figures.
YouTube is an obvious cultural force. It is well utilized by entertainers, most notably by Psy and his “Gangnam Style,” which finally brought a K-pop star to a coveted international audience. Scholars and educators are also making good use of this new medium. The Khan Academy started out as a math tutoring idea for the founder’s relative, and now has 700 lectures on math, physics, economics, art history, American civics and many other subject areas that are delivered in over a dozen languages.
Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are seen as the future of education by some pundits. The movement has attracted major players from industry and education, such as the project that has partnered Google, TedX, Harvard and MIT. At the risk of being contrarian, I believe MOOCs to be most valuable not as a direct learning tool for students, but rather as a source of course materials for other professors.
Another massively popular presence is TED-TV, which has its own YouTube channel. TED-TV is a good example of how history has long been taught: a lecture that describes. That will always be the tendency of history textbooks. More importantly, in my opinion, is the approach that a teacher or professor uses to present the material.
One way to mitigate the influence of interpretation is for students to study primary sources. A primary source is what it sounds like: a text by an original actor in a historical event.
For example, in the course “Media English,” one of the YouTube speeches we use is U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Certainly students need to know the context of the events, but listening to one of the most important American speeches affords different learning opportunities. In that speech is one of the most important English words of the 20th century: “infamy.” It poses questions to students, such as, “Does it carry the most meaning?” “Does it signify the most importance?” “Is it of the greatest magnitude?”
Augmenting FDR’s video-recorded speech on YouTube are the original pages that he read from. By looking at the typed draft dictated by FDR and then the penned deletions, additions and notes written by the president himself, students can see subtle changes. In fact, the very word “infamy” was handwritten by FDR, replacing the scratched out “world history.” It was a lexical choice presumably made quickly, yet it is a word in American English that is associated with one context only: FDR saying it just that once to announce America’s involvement in World War II, which then led the country to become a superpower. Better for students to study such changes in a speech than to have to memorize facts, dates and numbers.
In his book “Meaning Over Memory,” Peter Stearns advocates the teaching of thinking skills rather than memorization tasks and rote learning. The purpose of history education “is to teach skills and convey insights about how people and societies function.”
Another significant historical figure that students appreciate learning about is President John F. Kennedy. His 1961 inaugural speech ― available on YouTube, of course ― is notable for many reasons: He was the youngest elected president, the first Catholic president, the first president born in the 20th century. And he won the election partly due to his commanding performance against Richard Nixon in the first televised debate.
To reinforce the idea that memorization is not essential in this class, quizzes are open-book. PowerPoints of my lectures are available on Hankuk University of Foreign Studies’ e-Class, as well as any handouts given in class. Students are responsible for keeping all handouts in a portfolio, which is evaluated at the end of the course.
Portfolios should be brought to every class, particularly since quizzes are scheduled regularly. If students forget their portfolio or don’t have all the handouts, they will be at a disadvantage for the quizzes. That was the case for one student on the week after studying the Kennedy speech, on which there was a quiz. One of the questions asked, “Who won the first televised presidential debate?” Bless her heart, one student wrote, “Not the sweaty guy.” A more typical question goes like this: What part of the speech was most meaningful to you? Why?
The study of history is important. But it can have lighthearted moments, and these moments reveal what students have learned and what is important to them. YouTube presents primary texts in a manner that is consistent with how students already engage with the world. It may seem that they are “just watching a video,” but in fact they are seeing historical events the way the world originally saw them. Given a chance to interpret the speeches and define what they see as significant, they learn independently and on their own terms.
By Gavin Farrell
Gavin Farrell is a professor in the department of English linguistics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. This article was contributed to The Argus, an English magazine published by the university. ― Ed.