Recording History: a conversation with Steve Heimler

As AP testing season approaches, the Falconer spoke with Steve Heimler for a Q&A about his YouTube channel Heimler’s History, where he posts review videos for a variety of AP history classes. With 458,000 subscribers, Heimler enjoys celebrity status among many students.

What is a fun fact about you?

I secretly wish I was an English teacher. I’ve always loved poetry or literature, but I never taught it. I know what high school students in general think of poetry, and it’s just so magnificent, and I want to be able to help them see the beauty in it.

What inspired you to start your channel?

It was more of a practical necessity. I was only with my students three days a week instead of five, and … I thought ‘Well, maybe I can do all the content with a video and then do all the skills in the class.’ So I started making videos for my students and the hard drive for my computer was so small that I needed someplace to stick them, so I started uploading them to YouTube…What surprised me is that a few months later, people started finding them…It blew my mind.

How have you seen the landscape of education change with the introduction of online tools like your channel?

When we’re speaking of technology, there’s this guy that I love to read, Marshall McLuhan. He talks about how technology is just an extension of the human being, so with every introduction of a new technology, you have an extension, but you also have an amputation … I think it’s the same thing with the landscape of education. All these new technologies have been introduced at a rapid pace, and there are lots of extensions to be praised, but there are also amputations … For a student to learn something, all the resources are available, and they’re all available with so little friction … [but] the nature of learning is slow … and difficult … So the amputation is that we no longer have the patience to learn deeply.

If you had the ability to change any aspect of how history curriculum is taught, what areas of the subject would you address?

I don’t like that [curriculum] is an argument among politicians who have never set foot in a classroom and don’t know what actually occurs there … It seems exceedingly dangerous to me to define the parameters of what can be learned and what cannot be learned … If any politician was listening to me, I would say, ‘You’re not giving our teachers and our students nearly enough credit for being smart, logical thinkers who can look at the wheat and look at the chaff and discard the chaff and keep the wheat.’ You have to be able to trust the process and realize that you’re not going to prevent them from learning this stuff anyway … so you might as well let them be exposed to it and understand it. I always tried to drive home to my students that there’s no subject that’s off limits to learning and in every subject, in every topic, you have to withhold judgment first. That’s the first job of a historian. If you have a judgment later, that’s fine, but first, you have to listen to them.

Why is learning history important?

Back when education, especially Western education, began to be democratized from the elite groups, education was mainly religious. In Europe, people learned to read the Bible; they mainly had a theological education. Just by virtue of being educated, you would be exposed to and invited to the main virtues of life: love, compassion, understanding, humility. But now, over the course of the increasing secularization of education … unless you were religious or unless your parents brought you up this way, you don’t have access to those virtues. But, if you give yourself to the discipline [of history], it produces those virtues in you. To study history you realize, ‘I’m just this one little guy in the grand scheme of things’ … and that confers humility on me.

How do you specifically approach teaching history?

My students always roll their eyes because the first day of class I introduce them to what I call the Epistemological Dorito. Epistemology … tries to figure out how humans know what they know. The way I put it is there are three perspectives on knowledge. One is the normative: the facts of a thing. The other is the situational: I know the facts of this thing, how is that going to change the way I behave in this world? The third perspective on knowledge is the existential, which is your affections. If you’re studying southern slavery in the Antebellum South, that ought to affect you. What I tell [my students] is that I am doing my best to give you the normative, and I’m going to tell you how maybe this will change your behavior, but what I’m aiming at in everything is those affections. I want the existential; I want you to leave here changed as a human being.

What does your channel mean to you?

It is incredible to me that the work that I do means something in the lives of other people. Even though I can’t respond to most comments, because then I wouldn’t do anything else, I read most of them. Probably in no other profession will you ever get as much praise for your work as I do in mine, which is a gift and I receive it that way. The thing that makes me the happiest is when somebody says … ‘I struggled so much to understand this … and the stress has been overwhelming and then I found your channel, and now I understand it.’ There’s this Emily Dickinson poem where she says, ‘If I can keep one heart from breaking, I will not have lived in vain.’ If I can keep one student from drowning, or if I can take one student and look them in the face through a screen and say, ‘You think you can’t do this, but you can’ and then they do it … then I feel like my life will not have been in vain.

*answers have been cut for clarity and length
Read on Issuu.

One thought on “Recording History: a conversation with Steve Heimler

  1. Hi there would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re
    working with? I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m
    having a hard time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique.
    P.S Apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post An Unstable Future
Next post Section 504