Join the cause, share your ideas

As you have chosen to visit this page, there’s a good possibility that you are in agreement with the main ideas presented on this blog, and you may wish to support the concept of Future-Focused History education. If so, I salute your obvious intelligence, keen powers of discernment, commendable sense of civic responsibility, and what are surely your devastating good looks.

The first thing a person can do to support the cause is to follow this blog via email, which will help to build a base of supporters who are able to communicate with one another. To sign up, enter your email address in the box at the left on a personal computer or pad device, or click the three bars at the top of the page on a smart phone.

So, where do we go from here? 

Probably the ultimate objective of this blog is to work toward developing a critical mass of history educators who are aware of the concept of Future-Focused History (FFH) and think it’s a good idea. At that point, teachers who operate with a degree of autonomy may start to bring FFH instruction into their classrooms, and other teachers could begin the task of persuading principals, superintendents, and school boards to add FFH to the curriculum. 

But it’s a long way between there and here. Future-Focused History instruction can become a reality only if supporters identify and successfully implement the intermediate steps necessary to reach the objective. At a minimum, the following two steps would seem to be necessary: 

Spread the word about Future-Focused History through measures such as speaking with colleagues, using social media, conducting professional development sessions, and so on.

Experiment with FFH activities in classrooms to learn which approaches to instruction might be effective. Pilot programs could follow.

I have done what I know how to do. After retiring from teaching, I spent seven years studying the state of contemporary history education. I wrote a book describing what I learned, and I started this blog as a way to try to do something about it. However, I am no longer in a position to experiment in the classroom nor to organize professional development meetings, and I am woefully inept at social media.

Advancing the concept of Future-Focused History education will require a community of people who know lots of things that I don’t know and who can do many things that I can’t do. This page can serve as a place to bring like-minded people together to offer suggestions, consider possibilities, develop strategies, and organize action. I hope you will consider adding your unique perspectives and abilities to the effort. (Watch this page for specific ways that people can help.)

By working together—by bringing our different talents to bear—perhaps we might one day succeed in making a positive contribution not only to the future of history education, but also to the larger society that needs more than ever before the kind of wisdom that only extended historical experience can provide.  

-Mike Maxwell

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11 thoughts on “Join the cause, share your ideas”

  1. I’m interested in this mission, though I’m a sociology teacher, history is my first love. I do have a couple of issues. First: Florida. Yes, I teach in Florida. Let alone the new nonsense that we have to deal with, Florida history classes, especially U.S. History, which is tested, force teachers to conform to the old standard for teaching history. World History teachers have a bit more latitude. How can I do a “future-focused history” while still covering the requirements that will be tested using a multiple-choice exam?

    My second issue is a bit more semantic, I guess. Reading your recurring dynamics, most of them are described in terms of “human instincts”. I find this problematic as “instinct” is a topic that is outside of the field of historical study. Historians study actions. Whether or not these actions are subject to instinct is an issue for the neurologists. For instance, human beings have an instinct to assert power over others. Really? I don’t think I have that instinct. Do you? What’s wrong with us. We have an instinct to fear others? I’m not so sure. I’ve met plenty of others. I’ve traveled all over the world. Wasn’t scared at all. How was I able to do that in the face of my contrary instincts? I think what is being attributed to “instinct” are rather historical constructs of power developed under very specific circumstances and using very specific discourses to sustain.

    Still, very useful stuff. I’ll pass the word to my peers.

    1. Hello-
      I’d probably be mad too if I had to teach in Florida. My condolences.
      Thanks for your thoughtful email, but before I respond, I must apologize for being such a terrible social media guy. I’m responding to your message nearly three years after you sent it. Somehow I missed it when it arrived originally. Mea Culpa.

      You ask, how do you teach future-focused history and meet the state’s content requirements? No doubt it matters what those requirements are. I have no idea about Florida, but here in Colorado the requirements were so vague that I simply taught what I felt I should teach and located the requirements that matched my content in some way.

      My book Future-Focused History Teaching identifies several types of historical learning appropriate for history education (in my view). If this knowledge can be taught in the Florida system, I simply don’t know.

      You caused me to give some thought to my use of the term “instinct.” As you indicated, this may be an matter of semantics. Encyclopedia Britannica observes that the term instinct has borne a variety of meanings in very different contexts, one of which is “disposition,” defined as : prevailing tendency, mood, or inclination, or temperamental makeup. Perhaps you might be more comfortable if I said humans exhibit a disposition (rather than instinct) to exercise power over others. And perhaps that might be a better word choice, but I think it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

      I suppose I am using instinct in much the same way that Freud does on p.146 of my book, when he says humans “are so entirely governed by their instinctual wishes.” That is, human behaviors are largely instinct based. Surely, human behavior is the subject matter of history, and if instinct plays a central role in those behaviors, it would seem that human instinct might be a valid concern of historical study. But of course, opinions may differ.

  2. Oops. Mike again. I looks like it only took me slightly more than one year to respond to your message. Better than three years, but still wholly unacceptable. Sorry.

  3. Wow! No worries, my friend. From a Freudian perspective, better latent than never! 😀

    I think I’m almost as wary of the term “dispositions” as I am “instincts”. Then again, I am a sociologist, so that’s inherent in the field. I approach history from a sociological standpoint–some combination of Symbolic Interactionism/Phenomenology/Power-Knowledge…If I ever get around to publishing my book I’ll share it. For the most part, the only instinct or disposition that sociologists really recognize are those through which we form social connections.

    A hundred years ago W. I. Thomas suggested what he called “Four Wishes”. They were introduced to me as “Social Needs.” 1. The wish for novelty, 2. The wish for security, 3. The wish for connection, 4. The wish for recognition.

    I’m struggling with such questions as intrinsic human motivations in my own theoretical work. I touched on them in an old fiction novella I wrote some time back. I tentatively refer to them as Fundamental Human Motivations. They’re tough to confirm and develop sociologically.

    Anyway, just spitballing with you. Thanks for responding. Take care.

    1. Dear Mr. Mad Sociologist-
      Hello again. I’ve continued to reflect on your thoughts about my use of the term “instinct.” I understand and credit your objection—that history is the study of actions. However, surely, the source and motivation of these actions is a worthy subject of historical study. Perhaps the essential focus, if we want people to learn anything greater from history education than the specifics of individual past events. Which I do—fervently.

      Nonetheless, you have made me uneasy about identifying instinct as a source for some human actions. You didn’t like “disposition” for, I assume, similar reasons. How about “inclination,” which may be more of an observable action than is an instinct or disposition. But is this just splitting hairs?

      Anyway, you left me waist high in the weeds with your discussion of sociological theory, but when you speak of struggling with “intrinsic human motivations,” isn’t this term essentially another way of saying “instinct?” Now you’ve got me struggling with instinct too. Thanks a bunch.

      I think I know how I missed your message of a year ago. This time last year my wife and I were in the midst of our 73-day “epic road trip” through Mexico, the U.S. and Canada visiting family and old acquaintances. When we returned, I had scads of email to go through and obviously misplaced yours.
      Seriously, thanks for a thought-provoking discussion.

      1. I’ve taken my share of epic road trips…east to west. South to North would be awesome!

        For some time now I’ve been slogging through a theoretical work that is frankly a bit more than I can chew. But all the most meaningful work usually is. In essence, I started asking the question, “is democratic government possible?” Then this emerged into, “is a democratic state possible?” It’s looking like it isn’t.

        Turns out that that is a really big question, begging lots of smaller questions, not the least of which is, exactly what is “power”. Most of the explanations I’ve seen from social theorists on the nature of power is unsatisfying. As far as I can tell, power boils down to the ability of the individual to shape their environment. So, when we think about “powerful” people or “powerful” institutions, we are really observing networks by which individuals are motivated to use their power toward other people’s ends. Institutions, and the people who guide those institutions, are able to motivate individuals to exercise their power to meet the goals of the institution.

        Why? What motivates this behavior?

        This is what leads me to thinking about “instinct” “dispositions” “inclinations”. I’m suspicious of these terms because they can be incorporated into stories that serve to motivate individual action rather than describe the actual mechanisms involved.

        So, for instance, is it human nature to be warlike? I don’t think I’m warlike. I look at a culture like the Vikings…probably among the most warlike cultures in history…until they weren’t. What happened? Maybe warfare isn’t instinctive except under specific social and historical conditions…conditions that benefit those who steer institutions who may have a vested interest in warfare.

        Human beings are, by disposition, acquisitive. Really? I don’t know. I think I see enough examples of charity and generosity to question that.

        On the other hand, there must be some kind “instinct” motivating some level of human behavior. Otherwise, why should I seek to alter my environment–exercise power. And why do human beings exercise their power all over the world in such similar ways?

        So, I reframe terms like “instinct” “inclination” etc into “intrinsic human motivations” to try to get a handle on exactly what these internal motivators are. If left to one’s own designs, what would an individual do with their power?

        That’s a question that I’ve been pounding around for a while…working three jobs through most of that time, raising a mixed family and building a business…so the work has been rather slower than I had hoped. But conversations like this are instrumental in helping me stay focused.

        Thank you for hearing me out.

        PS: My mother would say that the reason you misplaced my email is because it wasn’t the right time to respond. When it was the right time, you found the email. I don’t have quite so mystical an understanding of events, but…still…maybe there’s something to be said.

        1. Hey, a question for you. A couple of times you questioned my use of the term instinct to describe behaviors that you believe are not instinctual in you. Is it generally understood that a behavior must be universal in a species to quality as instinctual? I’m having a hard time finding definitions that address this matter of universality. This is from “an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species.” Here it would seem that a behavior need only be common in a species to quality as instinct–that universality may not be required.

          My respects to your mother.

        2. Hmm. To be fair, “instincts” is a bit out of my bailiwick, but I’ll be happy to speculate. On one hand I’d have to ask, if it’s not universal, could it be an instinct? The real answer is, I don’t know. So, for instance, one clear instinct that we can identify is the grasping instinct in babies. To my knowledge, all human and even primate babies grasp when their palms are touched. They couldn’t have learned to do that. They just do it. Certain species of bird build nests. Are there birds of that species that just opt out of the whole nest building thing? To my knowledge, no.

          The sociobiologist E. O. Wilson posited that many human behaviors are based on evolutionary instincts that are often in conflict with the modern world. His theories became what we now call Evolutionary Psychology. There are some interesting ideas there, but I don’t think I buy the underlying premise.

          Because, on the other hand, an adult human brain is a pretty complex clump of lipids. For instance, I wouldn’t argue against the idea that we have an instinctive desire to survive. But there are plenty of instances in which humans have overridden what could be identified as their instincts toward some other meaningful end. Battle of Thermopylae? People rushing into burning buildings. Maybe there’s something about the human brain and human experience that allows us to override our instincts. Okay. Under what conditions? What are the mechanisms by which we act in this way?

          I don’t have good answers on this. My underlying critique is not that human beings don’t have instincts or inclinations. I would wager that we do. I mean, would humanity even be possible if not for some intrinsic inclination to form social connections? Certainly, my field of sociology wouldn’t exist.

          My wariness is based more on the assumptions we make about what constitutes an instinctive behavior and where those assumptions come from? Furthermore, how do we test these assumptions in order to validate them? That’s where it gets complicated for the sociologist, and I may be speaking out of turn here, but also for the historian.

          For instance, if a sociologist wants to understand the motivations of social actors, we have a process for that. We can ask. We observe social action as it is happening, so we just use some qualitative techniques. But this is more complicated than it seems because human beings internalize social constructs. If a behavior is understood to be instinctive in a particular culture, then an individual may well define their actions in terms of instinct…which complicates our ability to validate our assumptions about instincts.

          My particular interest is sociology of knowledge. I look at how knowledge is bound up with power relations. So, the first thing that I ask is, “who benefits from understanding this thing as an instinct?” “What are some other explanations?” How do we test the validity of one assumption against another?

          I would imagine for much of history discerning instinctive human actions is even more complicated because you don’t have the opportunity to ask. The best you can do is scour the primary sources for self reported motivations and try to discern some patterns. Again, this runs into the same problem as just asking. Complicated further by the fact that you are often working off of translations.

          Teaching is my day job. I think the most important aspect of teaching history and sociology is that these disciplines, arguably more than any other, are premised on challenging assumptions that are otherwise taken for granted.

          I work with a lot of students who are convinced that “I’m just not a good reader” or “I’m just a violent person, that’s just who I am.” They are, in essence, making the instinct or human nature argument. By accepting these assumptions they are surrendering a great deal of agency. I’ve worked with women convinced that there’s something wrong with them because they just don’t have a “maternal instinct” when it comes to children. Or people who argue that greed is intrinsic to human nature, therefore I am justified in outgreeding the other guy because if I don’t outgreed him, he’ll surely outgreed me.

          Now that I think of it, however, I was just watching an interview with a police interrogation specialist who talked about how he takes advantage of his subject’s natural inclination to be helpful.

          It’s complicated, which makes it hard to categorize reliably.

          I hope this helped.

        3. Well…I thought I was asking a fairly simple question, but after reading your response, I’m now up to my neck in the weeds.
          I guess my attitude goes something like this: If a particular human behavior has persisted across many cultures across millennia of time (as evidenced in the historical record), then it appears to be instinctual. I’m going with that venerable scientific maxim: “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”

        4. Never ask a sociologist a simple question. 😀 I’m sure there’s a paper in a sociology journal somewhere elaborating the social construction and discursive formation of polymorphous duckhood!

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