I was a teacher for 20 years. During that time, I taught mostly communications and journalism, as I’d been a reporter in a previous life. Still, when I applied for my teaching certificate, I was required to take a test to prove I knew something of value and, as journalism wasn’t an option, I took the history test.
Like many young people, I didn’t always care for history. It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered the thrill of learning about the past. Though, looking back, I did sometimes wonder about those who lived before me. Once, as a 12-year-old, after watching a TV show about ancient cave drawings, I took my father’s tools and gouged a hole in our garage wall. I believed there might be ancient artifacts buried in my 1950’s-era split level and wanted to find them. I was stunned when my parents punished me. Apparently, they were not the least bit thrilled by my budding intellectual curiosity.
In college, spoiled brat that I am, I got to live and study in Europe, where ancient sites were often just around the next corner. Celtic tribes inhabited the area of Luxembourg where I lived, until Julius Caesar arrived around 54 BC with his smart looking troops and conquered the local populace. Today, you can see, for example, a two-story, 40-room residence with marble walls, mosaics, a swimming pool, and under-floor heating, the construction of which began around 70 AD, built, no doubt, by Rome’s version of Elon Musk.
I can’t emphasize how fabulous it was to study the great World War I battle of Verdun and then pop over for a visit to see those trenches for myself. Or to spend a week in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Or to take the train to Paris to follow the Nazi occupation and Germany’s ultimate loss in World War II. Perhaps, had I not had those opportunities, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with history.
While I can’t say that history is currently the least favored school subject—math obviously holds that dishonor—from my experience it’s one students generally want to avoid. The argument has been the same for decades. “History is boring!”
Henry the XIII, the pyramid-building Aztecs of Mesoamerica, and Genghis Khan and his troops all have lessons to teach us.
Why do they feel that way? Sadly, for generations, the teaching of history often rested on the memorization of facts, dates, and times, which by themselves are as exciting as dust. What students need are good stories. For example, Henry VIII’s desire for eight wives is a made-for-TV soap opera with intrigue, violence, and romance, and an aftermath that changed the world. Then there were the Mesoamerican Aztecs, with their advanced architecture, engineering, agriculture, and science and their cities that rivaled those in Europe, at the time. And you’e got to love Genghis Khan and his lightning-fast horsemen who roared through parts of Asia and what would become modern-day Europe in blitzkrieg fashion. They conquered the locals and left behind snippets of their DNA that changed those of us who descended from them. If you like milk and cheese and ice cream, thank Genghis and his boys, because without their quirky lactose-digesting gene, we’d all be unable to enjoy a hot-fudge sundae.
I do understand that many of the historical events students are required to study are not inherently intriguing on their own, but history teachers should be able to find ways to make those moments interesting and, even more important, relevant. Also, we need to look closely at the times and events being taught. History lessons here in the U.S. have too often focused on the European versions of events, but there’s a big world out there with all kinds of historical lessons, so expanding what’s taught might help us better understand one another.
The problem currently is that not many college students are pursuing history as a major, fearing that the only job out there for them is, well, teaching history. But according to reporter Valerie Strauss, in her Washington Post article “Why so many students hate history—and what to do about it,” the study of history is good preparation for all kinds of careers.
“Historical knowledge is powerful currency for the 21st century,” she wrote. “History increases cultural literacy and sensitivity. You will learn to consider multiple points of view and changing global contexts…It also offers a unique education in the curation of content, teaching you how to collect, evaluate, and arrange a variety of sources into persuasive arguments and narratives. By interpreting the past you will better understand yourself. And those who know their history help to shape how people see themselves in the present and what they hope for the future.”
What’s more important than that?
Today, perhaps more than ever, we need to study history so we can see where we’re headed and, if we don’t like what that future holds, what we can do to change it.
Find Anne Montgomery’s novels wherever you buy books.