Future-Focused History Teaching

The study of history often takes a back seat to the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. Promoting STEM is necessary and worthwhile, and I have stated in a previous blog how we are not misguided in telling a student to “be a scientist and save the world.” I will, however, always be a cheerleader for the importance of students learning history. I will always do what I can to help teachers identify a good reason for teaching history and to teach it well.

Mike Maxwell has addressed the same mission in his informative and thought-provoking book,
Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning. History teachers searching for a higher purpose for all their hard work should take a look at Maxwell’s book. As someone who has spent over forty years teaching history and training history teachers, I have read much on the topic of history education, and Maxwell’s book is one of the best.

The book is well-researched and chock-full of information about what is currently happening in history education and what we can do to improve what we teach about the past. Maxwell addresses the ubiquitous presence of textbooks in history classrooms and the general inadequacies of those textbooks. He is particularly disturbed by the history classes that focus too much on the memorization of trivia.

In general, Maxwell wants to identify what makes history a useful subject and discuss the urgent need to teach it well. He asks an essential question and then answers it with common sense:

“Is our society better off holding a realistic view of the United States and its role in the world, or is society better off choosing to see only what it wants to see? Democracy is based on the assumption that the people as a whole will exercise better judgment than will a small group of elites. But this assumption is based on the premise that the people have access to a realistic rendering of reality which is primarily dependent on two institutions of democracy that don’t flinch from portraying reality: a free and honest press and a free and honest education.” (142)

In short, we must assume, as
George Washington believed, that most people want to do the right thing and will do the right thing if they have good information. Maxwell proposes we provide good historical information by moving away from history curricula based primarily on “knowing” and “remembering." We should not be requiring the memorization of massive amounts of historical trivia easily find on a smart phone when needed.

Maxwell also does not find the solution in creating history classes designed primarily to help students develop historical thinking skills. In a wise and nuanced explanation of the inadequacies of focusing on teaching historical thinking, Maxwell believes history classes are not really helping students develop any skills that are not already being taught across the curriculum. An emphasis on developing thinking skills does not distinguish the importance of studying history from studying other subjects. Maxwell wants to know what makes history different and why it is so important that students learn history.

In short, Maxwell wants history to be future-focused. He wants students identifying recurring patterns or "principles" of history that might help them in the future when confronted with situations similar to what people confronted in the past. Maxwell cautions history teachers against looking for “rules” or “laws” of history. He wants them looking at recurring patterns that occur over time.

A history teacher might, for example, create lessons around the following principle: “Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control.” This principle could then be illustrated by examining the Greeks in the fifth century BCE, Joan of Arc in 1428, American colonists in 1776, Toussaint Louveture in 1791, Native Americans at the Little Big Horn River in 1876, Zulus in Natal in 1906, Mahatma Gandhi in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Vietnamese people for the past thousand years.

Maybe, just maybe, students who have examined that principle of history will find the knowledge useful when they became voters debating world affairs. In other words, the history they learned was future-focused. They learned a history designed to help them understand the world better and make more informed decisions about how to shape the world. The history they learned was not composed of memorized facts forgotten soon after serving thier purpose on an exam. The history they learned came from a set of well-examined principles identifying patterns in history that will help them throughout their lives.

The College Board currently identifies learning objectives for its history classes that state expectations for student performance. The AP US history curriculum, for example, asks students to “Explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity.” All told, the objective asks students to
know information they can explain. But to what end? Why is it important to know it and explain it? Is it simply an academic exercise, a mind game?

Maxwell’s book gets to the heart of what makes history worthwhile and asks history teachers to reexamine curricula that asks them to teach one thing after another with no eye on the bigger picture, no eye on whether students learn something useful to them in the future.

I suspect most history teachers today are asked to work within a formal curriculum requiring students to know or explain historical information. The curriculum most likely also focuses on developing historical thinking skills. All of these are noble endeavors, but in the end, students need more.

STEM teachers generally have no problem explaining how science, technology, engineering, and math are “future-focused,” how those subjects will be useful in the future. The same is not true for the many teachers who struggle to make history a practical subject for students. For those teachers, I give Maxwell’s book the highest recommendation. He has made a terrific case for creating future-focused history classes. If our educational system adopted his general philosophy, we would have much work to do reaching a consensus about the principles of history we should teach our children. In the end, however, our efforts might not be as difficult as we think and would certainly create a much better answer to the perennial question that plagues history teachers: “Why are we studying this stuff?”



Duke Ellington, The Nutcracker Suite (1960)

Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite works on me like a time machine. I’d call it "nostalgia," but I was only four years old when it was first recorded. At that age I had little knowledge of a world beyond my family and home. I certainly had no awareness of Duke Ellington.

I did not begin listening to Ellington until I was in my twenties, and I should probably be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s when I first fell in love with Ellington's music rather than a time when Eisenhower was president. However, that is not how Ellington's music affects me. It does not take me back to a time in my own life when I first discovered the music's soulful elegance, it takes me to the time of its recording, a time when big band music was an integral part of American culture.

My faux nostalgia therefore comes from a longing for an era when Ellington's music was heard with ears more acclimated to big band music. I yearn to hear Ellington's music as an unalloyed product of its time, to hear it without the iconic adulation that came from a later age. I am envious of those who heard Ellington's music when it was first performed, before it was reshaped by familiarity. How groundbreaking and imaginative it must have sounded when it was new.

In 1965, a music jury voted to make Ellington the first African American and first jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The Pulitzer committee, to its everlasting shame, refused to accept the recommendation and decided not to give an award for music that year rather than recognize Ellington. Not until 1996 was an African-American (George Walker) awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first person to win a Pulitzer for composing jazz.

“Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they did. – Duke Ellington


The Nutcracker Suite, arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,
performed by
ARC Studio Jazz Ensemble & The Sacramento Jazz Orchestra


The Nutcracker Suite, performed by Steven Richman conducting the Harmonie Ensemble,
followed by a performance by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

Herbie Mann

I know nothing about Herbie Mann as a human being. I know only his music.

His recordings tell me nothing about his family, personal temperament, or worldview. They inform me only of his skills as a musician — his ability to improvise and perform in sync with other musicians, his ability to remain true to the harmonic progressions that underscored his solos and the syncopated rhythms that propelled him forward. The recordings tell me nothing about whether he was a great guy or a rascal, and I don’t really care. His music makes me smile, and that's enough.

Herbie Mann died in 2003 at his home in Pecos, NM. His music has brought me great joy over the years, and I still mourn his loss.

Bless you, Herbie Mann. Whether you were a saint, a demon, or just a regular guy, may you rest in peace. As a jazz musician, you were, for this former flute player, a demigod.

The Family of Mann performing “Memphis Underground,” 1982


Newport Jazz Festival, 1989


Carl Orff, Carmina Burana (1937)

The ubiquitous presence of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” in movies, television shows, and even commercials makes it difficult to imagine that someone has never heard it. Although it might sound a little spooky or devilish, it is actually part of a larger piece of music based on a collection of twelfth-century poems about the pleasures of love, nature, and alcohol. The piece is titled Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuern), and “O Fortuna serves as an introduction and coda to the piece.

Here’s the lyrics to “O Fortuna" to follow as you listen to the video below. I have also embedded a playlist of
Carmina Burana in its entirety.

O Fortuna, (O Fortune,)
velt luna
(like the moon)
statu variabilis, (you are changeable,)
semper crescis aut decrescis; (ever waxing and waning;)
vita detestabilis (hateful life)
nunc obdurat et tunc curat (first oppresses and then soothes)
ludo mentis aciem; (as fancy takes it;)
egestatem, potestatem (poverty and power)
dissolvit ut glaciem. (it melts them like ice.)

Sors immanis et inanis, (Fate — monstrous and empty,)
rota tu volubilis, (you whirling wheel,)
status malus, (you are malevolent,)
vana salus
(well-being is vain)
semper dissolubilis, (and always fades to nothing,)
obumbrata et velata (shadowed and veiled)
michi quoque niteris; (you plague me too;)
nunc per ludum (now through the game)
dorsum nundum
(I bring my bare back)
fero tui sceleris. (to your villainy._

Sors salutis (Fate is against me)
et virtutis
(in health)
michi nun contraria, (and virtue)
est affectus et defectus, (driven on and weighted down,)
semper in angaria. (always enslaved.)

Hac in hora (So at this hour)
sine mora
(without delay)
corde pulsum tangite; (pluck the vibrating strings;)
quod per sortem (since Fate)
sternit fortem,
(strikes down the strong man,)
mecum omnes plangit! (everyone weep with me!)




Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor (1868)

Edvard Grieg stood only five feet tall and composed music while sitting on copies of Beethoven’s piano sonatas so he could reach the keyboard. His diminutive size, however, did not keep him from writing titanic music, as evident in his Piano Concerto in A minor. Except for the Peer Gynt Suite, the piano concerto is probably Grieg’s most well-known composition—and it’s a beaut. The great Franz Liszt performed it in Rome and made recommendations to Grieg for revising the score. Grieg responded by telling Liszt that he had performed the first movement too fast.

Arthur Rubinstein (piano) with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra


00:00 – First Movement
14:25 – Second Movement
21:32 – Third Movement

Grieg died on September 4, 1907, and his ashes were interred outside his home in Bergen, Norway. I took the photo below of Grieg's gravesite three years ago when I had the wonderful opportunity to tour his home.


Grieg_Tomb.jpg

Guthrie, Rimbaud, and Billy the Kid

I often find legends and myths about Billy the Kid more fascinating than factual narratives. So little is actually known about William H. Bonney, that I read most histories of his life with a suspicious mind, and the novels, television shows, and movies are sometimes more interesting than the history books.

Someone with a creative mind might, for example, begin with these lines from Woody Guthrie's song "Billy the Kid" and tell a complicated and transfixing story.

There's many a man with a face fine and fair
Who starts out in life with a chance to be square,
But just like poor Billy he wanders astray
And loses his life in the very same way.


Someone might even take these lines from the "The Seven-Year-Old Poet" by Arthur Rimbaud, a French writer who most likely never heard of William H. Bonney, and create a new and compelling myth of the Kid's life.

And so the Mother, shutting up the duty book,
Went, proud and satisfied. She did not see the look
In the blue eyes, or how with secret loathing wild,
Beneath the prominent brow, a soul raged in her child.


In short, long after all of us who are alive today are gone, people will still be telling stories about Billy the Kid.


The lyric quoted above is not used in this version of Woody Guthrie's song.


Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)

People who don’t think they like classical music will probably say they like the music of Arvo Pärt. He is a deeply spiritual man, who composes music that works as a form of prayer, music that can make you look inside yourself and find something good.

In the piece I have embedded below, Pärt provides music that defines “stillness.” It contains no moments of conflict and works as a benign counterpoint to the noise of the modern world. “Spiegel im Spiegel” translates from German into “mirror in mirror,” the perfect title for a piece of music that should feel as if you want it to go on forever.

Leonhard Roczek (cello) and Herbert Schuch (piano)

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein's contributions to educating people about classical music in general and Gustav Mahler in particular are legendary. For almost fifty years he brought a depth of passion to the musical masterworks he conducted that touched audiences around the world. If only he had been able to live two lifetimes so that he could have given us even more original compositions. (Bernstein was born on this date 100 years ago.)

Bernstein, "Simple Song" from Mass (1971)
Joseph Kolinski (baritone)



Bernstein, score for On the Waterfront (1954)
(The music begins at 2:53.)



Bernstein, "Mambo!" from West Side Story (1957)
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the
Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Billy the Kid and The Westerners of Silver City

I recently made a presentation to The Westerners of Silver City, NM. Although I spoke extemporaneously, I have provided the gist of what I said below.

If you live in southern New Mexico, you have certainly seen the iconic image of Billy the Kid standing with his rifle next. You simply cannot avoid bumping into something to do with Billy the Kid. The Kid is our claim to fame. We cannot escape him. People from all over the world fly to this part of the world to visit Billy the Kid country.

I have lived in southern New Mexico all my life, and there’s no way to count the number of times I have eaten and shopped in businesses named after Billy the Kid. Like thousands of other people who grew up in this part of the world, I wrote reports about Billy the Kid when I was in school. For me, and probably everyone else in this room, Billy the Kid is part of our cultural DNA.

I’ll also say that my personal interest in Billy the Kid comes from my experiences as a high school teacher. Over my thirty years in the classroom, I taught lots of Billy the Kids. Those of you who are teachers can probably relate to what I am saying, especially if you look at what those who knew Billy the Kid in Silver City said about him in later years. Keep in mind that when he moved to Silver City he was only thirteen years old

Those who knew him at that time generally described him as a well-mannered and likable young man. He enjoyed music and performed in musical theater. He enjoyed reading. It was said he wasn’t as bad as the other boys in town and that he came from a good American home. His teacher said he always helped with chores around the school. She also said he had an artistic nature. He evidently loved his mother, and those who knew her described her as a "jolly Irish woman" who would do anything for her sons. The Kid’s mother died of consumption when he was only fourteen years old — and the rest is history. Without the guidance of a loving mother he ended up on the wrong side of the law.

I’m certain that those of you who have taught school have known students who were smart, likable, and cooperative, students who could have done something good with their lives, but circumstances sent down the wrong path.

And that’s the story I’ve tried to tell in my novel Catherine's Son. I wanted to tell the story of what might happen to make a good boy go bad. I used the historical record dealing with the years the Kid lived in Silver City as the skeleton of my book and then I fleshed out the story by simply making stuff up, which I assume is the approach any writer takes when writing historical fiction.

And I make no bones about my book being a work of fiction.

In the end, it’s difficult for the scholars to write about Billy the Kid, because we actually know so little about most of his life, and what we do know is often nothing more than myth.

Even so, the myths about Billy the Kid are endlessly fascinating.

For those of you who don’t know his story, let me take a moment and go over it. Even though much of what happened to the Kid is open to debate, what I’ll tell you is the standard, traditional story that has served as a foundation for an uncountable number of other stories created from his life.
  • William Henry McCarty was born in New York in 1859. Nothing is known about his father, but, as the story goes, his widowed mother took him and his brother west after the Civil War. His mother then raised him and his brother on her own while running her own businesses in Indiana and Kansas before she moved to Silver City in the New Mexico Territory.
  • While living in Silver City, the Kid’s mother died of consumption. He was fourteen and was left alone to survive a lawless and violent society. He got into trouble after his mother died and got arrested for stealing from a laundry. He then escaped from his jail cell by crawling up a chimney and heading toward Arizona. He was only fifteen when he left Silver City.
  • In Arizona, he became a horse thief. He also killed his first man in a bar fight, probably in self defense. He then returned to New Mexico and joined a gang of cattle rustlers and thieves. He also changed his name to William H. Bonney. Those who knew him called him "Billy" or "Kid." He wasn’t known as Billy the Kid until the newspapers created that name for him about six months before he died.
  • Within a few weeks after returning to New Mexico, he moved to Lincoln County in the eastern part of the Territory. In Lincoln, he was given an opportunity to make an honest living when an Englishman named John Tunstall gave him a job as a ranch hand.
  • The Kid worked for Tunstall only a few months before Tunstall was assassinated by men working for an organization called the The House. The House was a ruthless group of businessmen who had monopolized almost all business activity in Lincoln County. The House also had the support of a group of powerful businessmen and politicians who ran the entire New Mexico Territory, a group that was known as the Santa Fe Ring. After The House assassinated John Tunstall, the Kid found himself fighting in a war of revenge those who ran Lincoln County and the New Mexico Territory.
  • After the Lincoln County war seemingly ended with the defeat of Tunstall’s forces, the Kid would not give up and kept fighting, making himself a nuisance by rustling livestock from his enemies. In an attempt to put his life on the right side of the law, however, the Kid made a deal with the Governor of New Mexico, agreeing to testify in open court against allies of The House. In return, the governor offered him a pardon for any crimes he had committed. The Kid kept his part of the bargain and testified. Even so, the governor never granted the Kid a pardon.
  • Meanwhile, newspapers, in cahoots with The Santa Fe Ring, began portraying the Kid as the worst of the worst in the New Mexico Territory. The Kid became a scapegoat for everything wrong in New Mexico and a symbol for the lawlessness of the American West.
  • The Kid was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang, making him the only person convicted of a crime for actions committed during the Lincoln County War. However, in a daring escape in which he killed two guards, the Kid left his jail cell in Lincoln only a few days before his execution. He then found refuge among his friends and supporters near Fort Sumner.
  • Three months after he escaped from jail the Kid walked into a dark room at midnight where he was ambushed and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett. The story goes that Billy the Kid was only twenty-one years old when he died, but historians are not certain. He may have been as young as nineteen.
All told, the Kid gave us one heck of a story!

What happened to him has provided novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists of all types with a mythic tale that can take a variety of forms. The Kid can be portrayed as a good boy gone bad or a boy who was born bad — bad to the bone. He can be portrayed as a cowardly punk, a black-hearted villain, a rebel without a cause, or a young hero — the American Robin Hood. His myth works any way you want to tell it, and his myth is as strong today as when he died 132 years ago.


Recently, I have made my living as an education consultant. In short, I train teachers to teach history, and a central theme of my workshops is that history teachers should not only provide students with historical information, they should also help students learn to think historically. It may sound odd, but Billy the Kid has become an essential element in the workshops I lead. The Kid’s story is perfectly designed to help students learn to think historically.

Historical thinking involves much more than I can really explain today, but let me give you an example of a few ways that I use Billy the Kid to teach historical thinking.

First, historical thinking entails the ability to ask questions. All historical research begins with a question of curiosity. History teachers should therefore routinely ask students, “What questions do you have? What do you wish you knew more about?”

And there’s no better way to help students learn to ask questions than to tell them about Billy the Kid. Almost anything you say about Billy the Kid generates more questions than historians can possibly answer. Our knowledge and understanding of the Kid’s life is so incomplete that students quickly learn to understand a standard rule for all historians — you must be able to tolerate uncertainty.

For historical thinkers, the Kid’s life is also a good lesson in contextual thinking. Good historians learn to place documents and artifacts from the past in historical context. Historians know that to understand the people of the past they must place them in the context of the world in which they lived. Billy the Kid lived in New Mexico in the 1870s, and it is impossible to understand him without understanding the society in which he lived.

During the Lincoln County War Billy the Kid was only eighteen years old and the men allied against him were the wealthiest and most powerful men in New Mexico. He also lived in New Mexico at a time when it had the highest murder rate of any state or territory in the nation. New Mexico had .2% of the population of the United States and 15% of the murders, and most of those murders were never prosecuted or punished. At least, they were not punished within the law. Billy the Kid certainly killed his share of men, but he also lived in an environment where killing was commonplace.

Another element of learning to think historically is learning to recognize how things change over time. Documents from the past change meanings according to the time in which they are studied. If you read a book from the 1920s about the Civil War, it will reveal more to you more about the 1920s than the Civil War. It will certainly give you a different version of the Civil War than books written in the twenty-first century.

The story we tell about Billy the Kid, like any story from the past, has gone through several transformations. The stories told about the Kid in the 1890s are much different from the stories we tell today. What’s important to keep in mind is that whenever the stories are told they always reflect the time in which they are created.

Let’s take an innocuous historical statement such as “Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid,” and let’s examine how responses to that statement might have changed over the last 130 years.

If I had made that statement in the 1890s, I probably would have received responses that were variations on one theme: “The Kid got what he deserved.”

In the 1890s, people had been exposed to numerous newspaper reports, dime novels, and books that generally portrayed the Kid as a cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented the old ways of settling problems in the American West with a gun. Many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were looking forward to an end of the Code of the West and the development of a modern and civilized urban society. Americans wanted nothing to do with people like Billy the Kid who settled their problems through anarchy and violence.

If I had said, “Garrett killed the Kid,” in the late-1920s or 1930s, I would have received a much different response. During that time, the Kid was generally portrayed as a hero. On the jacket of a bestselling book about the Kid, published in 1926, the Kid was described as the “Robin Hood of the Mesas.” In 1930, a movie film about Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack, an All-American football player was shown to test audiences who were so disturbed by the Kid’s death that the producers were forced to change the ending. In the version released to the public, Pat Garrett fakes the Kid’s death and lets him escape to Mexico with the girl he loves.

The way the Kid’s story was told in the late-1920s and 1930s tells us more about that time in history than it does about Billy the Kid. At a time of gangsterism, financial corruption, and economic depression, the Kid was portrayed as a romantic hero fighting against the corrupt business forces of his time. In short, he was a heroic figure.

If I said, “Garrett killed the Kid” in the 1950s or 1960s, I would probably get a response that provided some version of how the “system” or the “establishment” always wins — some version of how the good die young. During that time, the Kid was portrayed as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean or Marlon Brando of the Old West.

And what happens when I say, “Garrett killed the Kid” in modern times? I have made several presentations and taught classes on Billy the Kid, and the reaction is often the same. It either sets off an argument over whether the Kid was a hero or villain or questions about whether the Kid actually died in 1881. Someone always asks me, “Didn’t Billy the Kid die in Hico, Texas, in the 1950s?” To me, these reactions reflect how polarized we seem to be in modern times over every issue. The reactions also reflect how many people are likely to see conspiracy and coverup in any official story.

As I said before, I find Billy the Kid endlessly fascinating. For those of us who live in this part of the world, he is part of our culture and we cannot escape his presence.

As for where the Kid’s myth goes next, your guess is as good as mine. Wherever it goes, the new myths created from the Kid’s story will certainly reflect the changes in our world.

I am also certain that wherever the myth of Billy the Kid goes, it will not go away. Long after all of us in this room are gone, people will still be telling stories about Billy the Kid.

silver+city
Silver City, NM

Debussy, Préludes (1910, 1913)

"Music is the silence between the notes." – Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy, a French composer known for his unconventional use of melody, harmony, and timbre wanted a piano to sound as if it were "floating" and had no hammers. In his
Préludes for solo piano, published as two books in 1910 and 1913, he composed twenty-four pieces that each create a different mood and sound quasi-improvised. I have embedded a recording of the Préludes performed by the pianist Krystian Zimerman, a recording that, for me, perfectly captures the impressionistic spirit of Debussy. (You may need the Spotify web player or app to listen to the Préludes from the embedded playlist.)

As a bonus, I have also embedded an arrangement for five cellos of "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," the eighth prelude of the first book, and an orchestral version of "Fireworks", the twelfth prelude of the second book.




"The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," SAKURA cello quintet


"Fireworks," Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Phlharmoniker
Animation by Victor Craven