Tuesday, May 8, 2012

History is Gr8…But Not 2 Much

I lament that many people don’t have an appreciation for history. When friends and family visit me in the Washington, D.C. area, they rarely want to tour the many historical places around town. The fashion enthusiasts would rather clothes shop in our world class malls while the athletically inclined prefer to jog on nearby trails converted from an old railroad.

However, my idea of a perfect day is sitting in the stacks of a library paging through history books or looking through old boxes of documents and letters. Like a detective, I’m on the hunt for priceless nuggets of information. What were people’s lives like? What troubles did they face and how did they overcome them? I assumed (big mistake) that everyone was equally interested in history and its lessons.

A few years ago my teenaged niece visited. Doing my duty as aunt extraordinaire, I showed her around area museums and monuments while feeding her tidbits of historical facts. I also made sure she saw important documents like the Declaration of Independence. She was a trooper but seemed bored. Then we visited the Jefferson Memorial. Suddenly she perked up and said, “I’m SO excited. I’ve seen that place on TV. ” She texted one friend (the real sign she was interested) and called another. My heart thrilled that a young person suddenly realized the value of learning and celebrating history. And wasn’t I a wonderful aunt to introduce her to it? With tears in my eyes, I asked the question, “What television program had the Jefferson Memorial in it?” I expected her to say a PBS special or another educational program. Instead, she replied, “The Simpsons!” I rapidly deflated. A cartoon family was now the main purveyor of history? Who knew?

Apparently, quite a few people realized this. After I told a friend in England my tale of woe she said, “God bless the Simpsons! If it weren’t for them, my kids wouldn’t know anything about history.” Then and there I vowed that from now on anyone visiting would learn and memorize historical facts to pass down through the ages. I wouldn’t let The Simpsons be the equivalent of a historical textbook for future generations. I spread the word about my intention. To my surprise, not one (zip, zero, zilch) out-of-town person of any age visited for an entire year.

With plenty of downtime, I turned to reading historical mysteries. Some were excellent, blending history with mystery, action and romance. Others, sadly, ruined a good story with too many historical facts. One book read in part like it was copied from an encyclopedia with numerous dates and detailed descriptions. Gulp! Was this what my tours were like--information overload without memorable content? Even worse, do I focus on dry facts instead of people and relatable events in my historical stories? After all, what I enjoy most about history is learning how the people coped with their circumstances and what led to their decisions that perhaps still affect us.

Recently, I was given a second chance when my youngest niece visited. Instead of taking her on a forced march through the historical sites of D.C., I focused on one local church where George Washington had been a member. She was able see the tree where Washington tied his horse in the 1700s as well as touch items in the church dating from the Civil War. After our tour she told me that she would enjoy learning about history if it was like this. Possibly seeing the gleam in my eye she hastily added, “But not too much.”

How do the young people in your life learn about history or do they even care? Or, do they (gasp) view all adults as “living history” and having ridden dinosaurs to school?


  1. Unfortunately, history in school is presented as memorizing a bunch of dates and the names of wars. If it were presented as living history and how events connect and effect our daily life, I think the kids would appreciate history more.

    The old adage, "Those who don't remember history are bound to repeat it," hasn't helped. We either don't remember or every situation seems so different, we fail to apply what we know. The reason we keep sending troops over seas and sending tons of money to people how couldn't care less for our principles.

    I've rarely done the tourist thing when friends or family come to town. On the occasions when I have, I'm sure that I enjoyed it more than anyone.

  2. I too find history fascinating and subscribe to the edict that you have to know where you've been to know where you're going (who said that?).

    Alas, my two youngest children (high school age) don't agree. Like your young niece, historical snippets catch their attention, but on the whole they don't understand why they have "learn this boring stuff." In fact, according to them, their state history class is a joke, taught by teachers who don't care if you're there or not. I blame the schools for this. Indeed, what is the point of memorizing a bunch of facts?

    I think the key is what you and the Simpsons did. Make it fun. The same should carry over to literature. We've all read historical novels that read more like encyclopedias. Perhaps the key to interesting historical fiction is weaving history into the story just as we do descriptions so that the reader doesn't realize that you've giving them information.

  3. I also love history. On our yearly camping trips with our kids, my parents and assorted younger siblings, who were still living at home, we always made it a point to visit some historical home or site.
    Depending on their age at the time, they seemed to get something out of it. One 5th grade teacher was amazed how much my younger son, remembered about Monticello when they studied Thomas Jefferson briefly.

    As for me, I inundated my 3rd grade classroom with posters, objects and anything that would cover the historical area I chose in chronological order starting with dinosaurs, on to Ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages and the coming to our country on the Mayflower. They read books like The Magic Treehouse series covering the period. I had classroom sets so two kids at a time could share. I read other chapter books to them, too. They wrote reports, plays, poems and stories. They made mummies, castles, and other hands on projects to go along with the topic. They even had a market place where they had to make something to barter with others in place of money. As Pilgrim children on the Mayflower, they each became an actual child that came over and wrote daily in fake leather covered journals to Aunt Patience, who answered their comments in proper vernacular of the time. We proceeded onward to when the early settlers came to Hiram, Ohio, where I taught. We ended the year with a visit to the local cemetery where they had a scavenger hunt, of sorts, for various early settlers and other things like different rock types of various gravestones. You should have heard the screams of excitement when they found the grave of one of the early settlers they'd studied, especially if they'd taken on the role of that person in their journals. I remember one little girl saying "I can't believe I'm standing on Mehitable Loomis," with such wonder and awe in her voice. That settler became a real person to her that day. They learned a lot and I've heard from teachers in the upper grades and my students' parents, how much their children remembered and one is even a reenactor at Williamsburg today.

    Sadly, I wasn't allowed to teach my way in the last few years of my career because of standardized testing that had us covering everything from A to Z in short bits of information. And, of course, what I was teaching wasn't to be taught in 3rd grade. So is it any wonder kids don't remember a paragraph or page or two of something that was covered in third grade now?

  4. Gloria,

    Your class sounds wonderful. I know children and adults who learned history from fiction. All hale ye historical novelists.

  5. Regarding what K.B. Gibson wrote: my sister, who is retiring in a few weeks, is an excellent 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher. She makes the topics studied come alive for her students in many ways. She's funny, knowlegeable, and takes workshops every summer to broaden her knowledge. Do all her students thrive? Well, she lives and teaches in a rural area in which many of her students come from deprived homes, not just financially, but from the lack of interest or negative feelings their parents have about school. She's had some of the most difficult students imaginable, and with no parental support in many cases. Does she give up on these kids? No, but it's a difficult job she has. However, the majority of her students love her and with good reason. She just took a group of her students to work on a Habitat for Humanity house for the day. She worked right along side them. I told her she was crazy. She was past that age to be shoveling gravel, etc. She laughed and said she had to set a good example. The school is losing one of their best assets.

  6. Warren, it wasn't just work. It was fun, and I learned a lot, too, from the reports they wrote - and I helped them with. For instance, before teaching Ancient Egypt, I never knew the brains were removed through the nostrils of the dead before they were mummified.

  7. K.B., I believe the quote is from philosopher George Santayana although I have a feeling that many people have expressed the same thing over time.

    I think that's great advice to weave in historical facts to a story like we do with description. It would probably make for a memorable and therefore more relevant story/lesson. And always remember to make it fun!

  8. It is a shame that history classes have children memorize facts instead of teaching living history, E.B.
    I think the choices of the past are so very relevant to our decisions today.

  9. Gloria, we need more teachers like you and your sister. I'm sure children thrive in that type of environment. Sadly, it sounds like standardized testing put an end to being creative in the classroom and being able to actually teach.

  10. I agree with all of you that it turns kids off and they seldom learn anything when they're just memorizing dates and names, but that's what the craze for standardized tests and "teaching for the tests" does. A real teacher, such as Gloria or her sister, finds her hands tied with these demands.

    EB, if any of the architects of our failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had bothered to study the history of the two regions, they would have realized that no nation or empire, however great, has been able to occupy and truly conquer those countries because of the tribal rivalries and the hostile environment. Those who don't remember (or never bothered to learn) history are indeed doomed to repeat it.

  11. Reluctant as I am to toot my own horn, I have a blog up on Suzanne Adair's Relevant History about AbrahamLincoln being challenged to a duel. http://bit.ly/JarvS2