How to Teach History

After spending so much time on the depressing state of American education in my last post, it would be nice to turn to something cheerfuller today.

Before anyone can talk about the right way to do anything, we have to settle the reason we’re doing it. We’ve already seen the downfall of education once you assume the purpose of it is to pass a test (in the short term) or get a job (in the long term, and most especially for anything that calls itself “liberal” or “classical”). Which makes it unlikely that these are good reasons to teach or learn anything in the Humanities. So for what reason do we, or should we, learn history? First, because it’s one good way of learning how to think. Being a judge of events, knowing the causes of events, and being able to research events, are conducive to exercise of the little grey cells. Secondly, because the people who lived before us shaped the world we live in today; because they had ideas and worldviews of their own that we may have forgotten, and which it might be good to recover; because they were people like us, not very different from us when all’s said and done (and I’m not talking about the relative similarity of skeletons in graves). And, thirdly, we have six to ten thousand years of stories to read. If life is a story (which I believe it is), the people who are dead have just as much of a story as we do, and why is theirs somehow unimportant because we’ve never met them? If you take the time and effort to present history as something more than a list of names and dates, you’re showing that it is important.

If this is our end, what should the means be? Well, if we view history as a story, it certainly makes sense to tell stories. Genevieve Foster’s books told history this way, and as a child I enjoyed them, and still have them. “Story of the World” pretended to tell history as a story, but it condescended to children so much that you got the idea the authour wasn’t taking it seriously.

I said in my last post that I left Western Civ. quite depressed about history. I had lost my love for it and couldn’t be more than a little sad. At the time I was working on my first foray into the world of historical fiction. It was not set anywhere near the Anglo-Saxon era, being in fact set during the American Civil War (not that it had a lot to do with fighting directly, being all about civilians), and took me over three years to write its whole hundred thousand words. My love for Lily, the main character, kept me slogging through it even as I questioned the point or purpose of history — for some reason I never quite connected history with what I was doing. Or perhaps Lily’s pleasure at finally having a time and place to call her own, after wandering about with me for years through all kinds of fantastical stories, was infectious.

The second time I thought I’d finished it, I had a harder time pulling out of it than usual. I couldn’t switch to another story right away, and I was sort of stuck in the 1860’s. I mentioned that to Jenny one of the times we met at school (in a hallway between classes on the first day, as I recall), and she said she knew how that was, and might know of something that could “help” (she didn’t say that said help would only add to these sorts of times, of course!). The next month I went to my first SCA event.

Some of you are probably groaning at this point. “Why did she have to bring up the SCA again?”

Jenny described her first event as going to a reunion for a family she didn’t know she had. Mine was like coming home. Ever since discovering Tolkien I’d wanted to live in something other than the modern world, but I’d come to accept that there was nothing like it outside of books. Then Jenny introduced me to it. Because the SCA has higher standards of historical accuracy than a Ren Faire, but isn’t as strict as a re-enactment group, so as long as you make an honest attempt at pre-seventeenth-century clothing, you can dive in at the deep end of research, or take as much time as you want. Because the period is so broad, from anywhere between the Roman Empire and the end of the 1600’s, there’s plenty of room for different people in it to find what they’d like to focus on.

The best part is that its official purpose is to teach history by means of hands-on learning. So, for example, instead of a lecture on 11-century English politics (which you might get from me anyway), a man can take the part of a thegn in that time, perhaps going so far as to make his own ring-mail. Instead of part of a chapter on Abelard and Heloise, someone might have the persona of a twelfth-century scholastic, because they’ve chosen to research that century and school of thought in detail (and you can be sure they won’t be misspelling the names). When you learn about history by doing what people in a certain time and place did, or eating the food they ate, or making and wearing the clothes they wore — in everything from pottery to (for the fortunate few) ruling a kingdom — history comes alive. It’s not dead and dried and stuck full of pins. When you can see and hear and smell and taste and touch history, it’s not foreign anymore.

This isn’t to say that the only good way to teach history is for everyone to jump into the SCA. Certainly there’s a lot more to history than just the medieval era, however loosely defined. And though it can be done well and inexpensively both at the same time, the question of time does come up. Partly because of time, Olivia and I didn’t get to Lupercalia last weekend, much as we miss it. And not everybody you meet there will be the kind of person you want to be with all the time. Still, I don’t doubt it’s better at what it tries to do than Western Civ. will ever be.


About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
This entry was posted in History, Lily's stories, SCA and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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