Don’t Know Much About History

The New York Times reported in January on yet another study showing dismal performance by U.S. students in science. The news was depressing, if not surprising, but the part of the article that really stuck with me was a throw-away line that didn’t have much to do with science:

But the results showed that a smaller proportion of 12th graders demonstrated proficiency in science than in any other subject that the government has tested since 2005 — except history.

If I’m reading that right, U.S. students come out of school with even less understanding of history than they do of science. The article didn’t elaborate, but a summary page about the test showed somewhere between 11 and 18 percent of students performing at the proficient rate, and less than 2 percent at advanced.

I’m sure it’s true. U.S. voters certainly demonstrate their ignorance of history most election years. But it makes no sense to me. Why don’t people get history?

I mean, history is just stories. And who doesn’t like stories? Both history and story are rooted in the Latin word historia. In modern usage, history generally implies a true story, while story can mean either fiction or fact. Regardless, they both mean narratives.

For some reason, though, the study of history always gets labeled as boring. Look at the Harry Potter books, for example: History at Hogwarts is taught by a ghost, Professor Binns, who drones on and on and is mostly ignored by the students.

In contrast, I can’t ever remember being bored in a history class, even in one with a less-than-inspired teacher. And I remember some very inspired teachers, especially in high school. They clearly loved their subject. Mr. Christian could wax poetic on Texas Indians and the history of Texas up until statehood (after that, he said, it was just like the history of every other state and not worth studying). Mr. Parker was obsessed with Henry VIII.

I caught the fever from them. If I’d had to major in something in college — I was in a liberal arts program that allowed me to jump around without picking a concentration — it would have been history, not English, even though I’m a writer and love literature. English majors were required to take courses I considered boring, like 19th Century American literature (an era I have only lately begun to appreciate).

Besides, while great English teachers inspired me to new adventures in both reading and writing, bad ones did bore me. I love Shakespeare — I began reading the plays when I was about ten — but I had such a bad teacher in college that I snuck other books into class to read. I did the same thing in senior English in high school: While my teacher was murdering Yeats, I sat in the back reading Sartre. I always figured I could read any literature that interested me on my own, though I confess that these days I do crave the opportunity to discuss good literature with other intelligent readers.

You can read history on your own, too, and I do. One of my favorite books from last year was Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, which I recently reviewed for The Cascadia Subduction Zone. If you look back at the Know Nothings of the 1850s, you’ll see the roots of the Tea Party, especially in their anti-immigrant stance.

It’s good to keep up with history, just as it is with science. New research brings out new perspectives.

I’m damned if I can figure out why more people aren’t interested in history or how it got its bad name. But I’m now going to worry as much about historical illiteracy as I do about the scientific kind.

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ChangelingMy novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.

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About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.

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Don’t Know Much About History — 12 Comments

  1. It might be because ‘history’ is written and rewritten ad nauseum by the ‘victors’ and the really good stuff almost always gets left out, and it might also be because, with a few exceptions, it’s taught as a regurgitation of those same victor-ious facts.

    Besides which, you can’t get a whole history book condensed down into 140 characters.

    Cynical? Me? Nah! 🙂

  2. I generally think that the problem with history in high schools is with the fact that schools agree that history is something students should know, but they don’t have any idea what that means. As they have problems thinking beyond the multiple choice test, they assume that history is, in fact, a series of 140 character tweets, and expect the students to have memorized them all.

    As the scion of two historians (one who worked with Nell Painter in graduate school) I know that the practice of history is finding the stories in the facts. The study of history should be, at an introductory level, learning these stories, understanding that there are conflicting versions of events, discovering the principles of human nature embodied in these stories, and being able to tell the stories, or your own versions of these stories, not to spit out every ‘fact’ that one storyteller/textbook writer found important enough to include.

    But if we did that, the grading would be harder.

  3. The word history actually is a Latinized form of the Hellenic term ??????? which means learning by inquiry (and also record and narrative) and is related to two verbs that mean to see and to know.

    History is not interesting if it’s a rollcall of kingships with dates. It becomes absorbing if it incorporates context and shows slices of life (social mores, political conditions, art and science of the era, the situations of Others — women, minorities, foreigners…).

  4. I shouldn’t have stopped with the Latin, though I always figure anything important attributed to Latin (and certainly the parts attributed to the Romans during the Empire years) originally came from the Greeks anyway 😉 (Many of the classic Roman plays are essentially translations of Greek ones, for example.) According to my very outdated shorter Oxford, history does intdeed come from the Greek, and the root of the Greek word is also knowing, learned. Interestingly, the entry for history says “see story” and the entry for story cites only the Latin historia as the derivation. But surely the Latin came from the Greek, too.

    I know we generally say history is written by the victors, but it seems to me that at least some of the unrest in the world can be traced back to versions of history kept alive by the losers. I’m thinking of 800 years of history in the Balkans and a similar length of time in Ireland, just as examples. I’m sure there are many others.

    In high school in Texas, I was taught that the U.S. Civil War was between us and them. (Guess which was which; if you can’t, you’re probably a Yankee.) They won, but we were morally superior. Funny how they glossed over slavery, but in those days my high school wasn’t integrated, either. Looking at recent activities — from the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy to Haley Barbour’s selective memory of what the White Citizen’s Councils did in Mississippi — I think it might be more accurate to say that history is frequently written by those who have an interest in distorting it to present a viewpoint, whether they are victors or glorious losers.

    Multiple choice tests are an absurd thing that only test the ability to take multiple choice tests. People should write papers, make videos, give talks, etc., to show they understand history, not take trite tests on simple facts that can be looked up when needed.

  5. A teacher can make or break a subject. I had some truly dreadful teachers at points, and even if you have some prior interest in the subject, it can be hard to care about the class. I never liked history in school because it was always so dry – rote memorization of facts, basically. I had a really great biology teacher, though, and always looked forwards to those classes. I ended up going to university for biology… and discovered that so many of my classes were simply rote memorization of facts, I found much of it boring. I was so glad when I finally graduated.

    I love reading historical fiction, being swept away to another time and place, learning about some of the events that shaped our world today. I think my change of opinion on history is partly due to the facts being presented as stories – and partly because I’m not expected to memorize the stuff and spit it back out on a test.

  6. One of the best ways to “trick” a student into an interest in history (judging by my self and my daughters) is the “everything you know is wrong” tack. Once I understood that a) history was the story of people (not statistics about battles or treaties, but the reasons for those battles or treaties), and b) history was often told by the person on the highest rock, I became a convert. This may be in part because as a kid I became a compulsive reader of the (I now realize) fairly awful biographies-for-kids series “Childhood of Famous Americans,” which never showed you the famous people being famous, only their growing up to be the people who would become famous, if you get what I mean. That developed my taste of biography, and I think my fascination with history started there.

    Really: the motivations and actions of humans are so bizarre, one could present history as “World’s Funniest Videos” and not be far off.

  7. I fear you’re more than right about the lack of understanding of civics, Diane. But in (slight) defense of those believing the health care reform legislation has been repealed, I must say that I noticed much of the coverage of it, especially early on, neglected to point out that the “repeal” was a political move by right wingers in the US House and had no chance of going anywhere.

    Bad teaching is certainly part of the problem, as several people have pointed out. Maybe I was just lucky to have more good history teachers than average.

  8. How history is taught can definitely be part of the problem. I hated history throughout most of school, especially in seventh grade where I had the teacher that required us to copy the homework questions and then write the answers in complete sentences. I don’t remember a thing from that class, but I learned to hate history…

    …and then I got to high school, and a brilliant teacher who was a gifted storyteller. He made me realize that history could be interesting.

    Of course there’s facts and dates that need to be memorized — if X happened after Y, then X isn’t the reason Y happened. But ultimately it’s about how people lived, what they did, and how those actions led to other actions.

  9. And it’s much easier to memorize those dates when the story makes it clear that there’s a sequence to the events. When they’re just freefloating numbers there’s nothing to hang them on.

  10. I disliked history because A) I’m not good at memorizing disconnected facts, which is what they wanted me to do, and B) I didn’t have the life experience yet to truly understand the motivations for things, so any connections THEY tried to draw between facts were mistrusted by me because I didn’t understand why people would act in one way or another, and C) Stories, to me, were FICTION. Always. History was supposedly real. If you relate history to me in the shape of a story, I’m already going into it disbelieving that the events actually happened that way, and thus I have no motivation to remember your facts because I can’t tell what’s real, and what’s embellishment.

    Like, if you told me a war happened in 1872 (pulling stuff out of my butt) and it was due to a scarcity in iron, I wouldn’t necessarily understand WHY that iron was important. I could parrot it back to you for a short time, but until I started to get a bigger picture of how so many assorted things depend on one another “important iron” wouldn’t be a connection to help me remember the important date…it’d be yet another disconnected fact on TOP of that date, and I’d have to memorize both. Child-me, with a personal history that only spanned a handful of years in modern life, truly did not understand that iron could be used for, say, plows. I didn’t understand that those plows were important, because nowdays we have big harvester machines. Plows are old antiqued tech that nobody uses. I didn’t understand that farming without plows is a really difficult labor-intensive task, because I’m a suburban-raised girl who gets groceries from stores, and plows, even without being a modern machine, make the necessary task of farming so much easier, antiquated tech or not. Now take that one example–plows–and blow it out to encompass a hundred other technologies that also rely on iron, which would also influence whether a nation goes to war over it or not. A BUNCH of stuff I couldn’t possibly have known about the world at that point in time…but which I’d have to know to really get an idea of sequence of events in a way I could grasp. But I didn’t get that…I got a date, a pithy “reason”, and was told to memorize. I couldn’t grasp the multitude of consequences controlling a particular resource could cause. Multiply all that by the idea that individual humans could cause such large changes…when I’ve never changed anything important at all in my life up to then (or even now at the age of 28)…I couldn’t wrap my head around it. None of it lined up with my personal experience in life. I couldn’t connect the dots. I was too young.

    The study of history is a study of humanity, and in school I was far too young to have enough knowledge of humanity to be able to comprehend history effectively.

    I suspect many people are in the same boat, because humans aren’t too hot at understanding one another.