Epistemic status: serious proposal with known difficulties and problems

Why do we study history? There are many potential reasons. More specifically, why do we teach history to everyone going to school? Many reasons become less relevant to those other than historians or history teachers.

The classic reason is "so that we don't repeat it". But most people will not end up in a position of power so as to decide whether we repeat or don't repeat history. A more honest reason, for most people, is that we learn history to generalise its lessons to the future or present. Assuming that purpose, we find current methods of history classes dreadfully ineffective. I propose an alternative paradigm of history classes which, I believe, will result in much more practical learning.

A cynical reader remarks that history education in school (in the form I'm targeting) is for indoctrination. From that view, take this not as a proposal for reform, but a suggestion on how to study well for your own sake.

Current history education focuses on teaching the students about past events. Students are then tested on those same past events. In higher history classes, they are also tested on analysing information about these events and arguing about their causes and consequences.

This is great for those who will be historians. Most students will not. This style of teaching does not guarantee any understanding of how to apply historical lessons to the present and future.

In schools where students just study to the test, make the test a good one. Instead of testing students on past events they studied, test them on events they didn't study. They are then forced to learn how to generalise history, applying its lessons to understand what they're going thru and what may come next. To get an objective answer by which to grade the students, test them on actual past events — just obscure ones that they wouldn't already know about. Sith they didn't study the material, they aren't expected to ever get a perfect score. This would make history classes more like maths or science classes, in that the students learn methods to creatively apply to problems they haven't exactly seen before.

This guiding principle should apply beyond the tests. We would replace history classes with predictive history classes. We teach about events and the patterns which underlie them, assign students to study and predict parts of new-to-them events on their own, and test by soliciting predictions on unfamiliar bits of history.

The argument for predictive history classes comes not just from mere pragmatism. Epistemically, current history classes are almost devoid of content. We teach students to look at events and explain them, but they never have to question what they're told. Sure, they're to think critically about conclusions from the events or claims regarding their causes, but the event itself goes unquestioned. They should be able to recognise which events are plausible or implausible iff they have a true understanding of history. Current history courses make no effort to teach them this. If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have no knowledge.

New Comment
17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:46 PM

In dath ilan they don't teach history. Instead children are kept willfully ignorant about the past, and adults coordinate to make sure children don't learn about historical events too early. Then, each year in school, they play in prediction markets to identify which historical events actually happened. "History" is not studied so much as used as training data used to get better at making accurate predictions under uncertainty.

Nice. Is there some post about dath ilan that establishes that (I don't see it in Yudkowsky's original AMA), or did you just make this up?

Just made it up by extrapolating from the dath ilan examples I've seen.

If Project Lawful is canon, then dath ilan has intentionally forgotten its own history, so they wouldn't have a very large data set for doing this.

(Keltham doesn't know why the decision was made, but there are some hints that could be taken to mean that it was done to destroy common knowledge about AI in order to delay its development while secret labs work on alignment.)

This reminds me – I'm pretty sure there was a LW post with a link to a website that showed you random questions from Metaculus or some similar thing, that let you make predictions about how it resolved, and then you got to immediately see the answer. Does anyone remember that? I just tried searching and couldn't find it.

I think the biggest problem with this idea is that, when you summarize a historical situation leading up to a certain event, that information has already been filtered and colored by historians after the event (for example if they were historians for the winning side in a war). It may be very different from what most contemporaries knew or felt at the time.

I always find interesting a new method of using History to teach useful tools and actually help people in their life. But often these new methods forget that History is two things : it is knowledge for most people, as such it is an important of anyone's culture. And it is a method for specialists. 

Predictive History class is interesting, however there are some issues here : before university the teaching systems mostly have for goal to give everyone, equally, the same cultural basis, and not give critical thinking or any kind of rationality. For exemple Philosophy course are not in any way about learning to think philosophically, it is more an history of philosophy. As such schools generally follow these goals : give knowledge and understanding of basic knowledge and concepts aimed to make you a good citizen, human being and worker.

The issue now is that your idea ask young people to get logical and rational thinking and learn how to use them. And I'm all for it. Young people should learn this for sure. But now is it possible to really apply it on History ? I don't think so, generally speaking you are able to predict something base on the information you have, you see an event as believable because you are aware of the context and of the habits and tendencies of the participants. That's how you can determine if an event is plausible or not, and that's why Historians do it and not students, because to be able to do it and be right you need a good amount of knowledge around the event you are analysing.

I don't think even history students would be able to do it with the knowledge they already have. However there were already "active" ways of learning History in University, with students learning by themselves parts of History before producing a synthesis and present it to the others. In the History course we also study methodology and basically how to efficiently get to the truth, however it's a research methodology, you are not predicting events, you are wondering if an event is plausible or not, you are researching it because History is based on the search and use of proof.  

So we now arrive at what is the biggest problem for me : History already has a methodology, his own logic, his own way to lead to the truth. This methodology already works quite well and you can use it on other scientific domain : being right is based on the proof you have to support your theory. To that you can add a constructive way of analysing History to reach conclusions and actually make it useful in any kind of human study. And that's where you can find some people trying to use History as a way to learn other logical thinking methods. 

Now that I expressed my opinion on this, there is good points in my opinion : first its a very active way of learning History, one that truly make the student an actor of his learning and that's always a good thing, also it is aimed to help people improve their logical thinking and really think of actions and consequences, and of the continuity of History, that everything is linked. As such, it is a really good way to make students understand better History and the reality of the events. So on its own its already better than most of the traditional way of teaching History. 

Finally, predictivity is actually very hard to apply to History, you can use this method as an activity in your course to diversify your methods and to keep your students curious and active. But in my opinion you can't have this instead of traditional learning since History is about knowledge, and culture, and already have a working method that already needs to be taughtand should be learned in schools way before university. Learning that truth needs to be supported by evidences and there is a logical methodology to go from discovery to building a theory, discussing it, and then reaching the truth. The method you are proposing make for a very good activity to help students emulate history, apply concepts already learned and to help them think logically. But the question is : would that time be more useful in basically applying the already existing method in this way ? 

Make student do their research based on clues and information given by the teacher for the evaluation, then make the student separate plausible evidences from non plausible evidences and then, based on them present a theory about the event that state the event plausible or not, or if there is not enough hard evidence of the plausibility of said events (like coincidental evidences, second-hand testimony, etc ...). This exercise would force the student to learn his lessons, to seriously think about the method and how to apply it, which is useful in itself for many other domains than History. But it is an activity, an evaluation method, I don't think you could build a full class on this since you still need to learn a huge amount of knowledge to understand patterns, consequences, links and cultural differences an way of thinking, and you still need to teach the use of sources in research. 

Conclusion : The research based on the collection of evidences, the importance of well used and collected sources, the scientific method based on theories that are discussed and debated. All of it is useful already but the common point is that you need to know a lot about the subject you are analysing to avoid getting false assumptions, or flawed one. However there is the possibility I didn't understand you well and gave you the words you didn't mean like that and since I find your idea interesting on itself. I would like to discuss it with you further.

 

PS : I'm sorry if my English is poor, I'm French and wants to use these occasions to improve my English discussing topics based on my work (as an Historan) and my interests (logical thinking, methods, etc ...). I'm also currently working on my teaching methods to find new ways to learn and use History in our modern day and age.

I worry about "predictive" history classes being even more like indoctrination than current ones, if implemented with tests on obscure historical examples as you suggest. Explicitly teaching students about general historical lessons which extend to the future can easily turn into politics. There are strong incentives to pick and choose historical examples which generalize to the lessons the teacher or administration supports politically. 

 

Current history classes at least have the strength that they teach students how to conduct research about known, factual questions. Even if they are only "studying to the test," students usually have to spend some portion of time writing research papers which demonstrate an understanding, based on evidence, of some historical phenomenon. For students not interested in STEM, this is usually the only serious training they will get in searching for evidence and interpreting it. 

Even now, with history classes mainly focused on learning banal facts, I notice students often try to write research papers that say what the teacher wants to hear. If the subject of their research was instead the more politicized question of "which general patterns are at play here and are useful for future prediction and decision-making" this guess-the-teacher's-password effect could be supercharged.

Sith

small typo

Thanks, but that's deliberate. Revived-archaic synonym of "because".

Are there currently people with the skills to pass such tests, or is this proposal intended to give students a novel skill that the instructors lack?

It's been my vague impression that there are no widely-accepted models of how history works that are detailed enough to let you predict the outcomes of unfamiliar historical events, and that in the few cases where students are asked to give causal explanations in current classes, their work is graded as a persuasive essay rather than as a factual claim that can be held to some objective standard of correctness.

I intended the latter. Ideally, instructors would start teaching students that in an act of educational reform, but that's harder and very unlikely from what I see now.

there are no widely-accepted models of how history works that are detailed enough to let you predict the outcomes of unfamiliar historical events

We don't need such a model. The students would be figuring it out for themselves, and we don't expect them to predict in great detail. There'd have to be a lot of partial credit in this.

in the few cases where students are asked to give causal explanations in current classes, their work is graded as a persuasive essay rather than as a factual claim that can be held to some objective standard of correctness.

That's exactly the issue.

we don’t expect them to predict in great detail.

And presumably we'd accept conditionals like "unclear if the emperor does X, but if so the eunuchs start a coup in the next year and the widows support it, unless..."

Roko had a twitter thread on this very idea a few weeks back, (replacing History students with LLMs)

https://arxiv.org/abs/2302.00805 This paper, in sections 2.1-4 has some more fleshed out perspectives on this idea, the authors again seeing it implemented ~in silico~