The typical history class goes like this: “The Peloponnesian War was fought by the Delian league, led by Athens, against the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, during the years spanning 341 to 404 BC. The Delian League leveraged the sea might of Athens, while the Spartans assaulted primarily by land. Ultimately the war was won by the Peloponnesian League, marking the end of so-called Athenian empire.”
It’s All About People
Real history is about people, not bland facts. A 50,000 foot view of the American Civil War is grossly inadequate for understanding the politics and sentiments that led to the opening shot on Fort Sumter. A much better understanding of the Civil War will come through reading autobiographies of the prominent figures of the time, such as President Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, or General Robert E. Lee.
When we read about the people of history rather than merely the things that happened, we gain a greater emotional connection to the events. Reading history this way allows us to vicariously survey the world as it really was, making it easier to ignore the anachronisms of our modern minds. “Hindsight is 20-20” demonstrates the attitudes of modern readers well, as we tend to look back at historical events with comments like, “Oh, I wouldn’t have done that. If I were him, I would’ve made a better choice.” It’s this superiority complex that the now famous Dr. Jordan B. Peterson alludes to when he reminds his audience to consider that they could’ve been the oppressors rather than the victims in the Holocaust or Communist revolution much easier than they might imagine.
Another benefit of reading history through people rather than through passing lectures on the highlights of a certain era is a better grasp of the timescale upon which the big events really happened. When we think back on history, even within our own life, the sense of time becomes condensed. In my own experience, when reading about Alexander the Great in the 300s B.C., I tend to frame his expansion eastward as not so far from the birth of Jesus Christ. In reality, more time existed between Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ than the between this writing and the founding of the United States of America. Furthermore, my knowledge of all the things that have happened over the U.S.’s nearly 250 year history is a good reminder of how many significant events likely happened between the times of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ.
What is more surprising is the realization that more time passed between the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza and Socrates than has passed between Socrates and us (by about 80 years). Reading about the people of history helps us to slow down in the telling of history and better understand the passing of time between and during major historical events.
The word history comes from the Latin historia, meaning a “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” . Any telling of history is thus a telling of a story. Stories hold an important place in most cultures throughout history; consider the Norse mythologies, Biblical parables, campfire ghost stories, or simply the sharing of personal experiences (funny or serious) with coworkers all as prime examples of the prevalence of storytelling in societies old and new.
Stories have integrated themselves into the very telling of human history because of their memorability. In pre-literate civilizations, stories could be remembered well because they conjured vivid mental imagery, which our brains process effectively due to their integration with our visual system. Information spoken in a more list-like form, or dull narrative form devoid of description and color, is much harder to remember since our brains don’t process information that way as effectively.
Whenever a friend tells you a good true story about themselves, he or she is telling you a part of their history. These interpersonal stories are memorable because they are entertaining and colorful, emphasizing the characters of the story involved, rather than a mere list of events that happened. We can apply the same positive features of these interpersonal stories to the telling of history. The challenge to better history teaching thus consists of 1) finding the illustrative parts of history worth telling, and 2) crafting those notable historical events into compelling yet accurate stories.
Great examples of such historical storytelling include the ancient historians like Herodotus, Plutarch, and Gibbons, or podcasts like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.
Cartoons No More
Another negative effect of our education’s primary method of teaching history is something I call the “cartooning” of historical figures. In addition to a condensation of our sense of time the further back in history we look, we also tend to strip historical persons down to a small handful of traits, accusations, praises, and facts. In other words, we illustrate historical figures as cartoons, often with the most prominent traits of that person embellished at the expense of their true complexity. (This same cartooning of people occurs in politics and news as well.)
Since I’m currently reading Mr. President: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office by Harlow Giles Unger, let’s take the first U.S. president as an example. Our view of George Washington is a heroic, respected war general crossing the Delaware River and later reluctant President of the United States. While the elements of this cartoon view are true, it glosses over the complex character and ailments of President Washington, especially in his later life. In some ways, he was less innocent than he may have let on, as he full well knew the loyalty of virtually all Americans to him before he was nominated as the first president and while he worked to further his version of a new federal government at the Constitutional Convention.
However, the cartoon view also doesn’t portray the true greatness of the man either. Leading up to his inauguration as the first president, he struggled with his personal desire to retire (for the second time) from public life to spend more time with his family and farm at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Opposing his retirement were virtually all state and local politicians, urging Washington that the very nation itself will fall apart if he does not serve as first president. On top of this, his arthritis and false teeth caused him considerable irritation while eating or speaking in public. Interestingly, the beginning of his presidency was primarily marked by boredom: long strolls, detailed letters to manage his home affairs, and very little “executive” actions. Washington is in many ways responsible for increasing the federal powers beyond those specified in the Constitution due to his desire for a stronger central government and interpretations on vague language in the Constitution.
The point is that our cartoon view of Washington is insufficient in describing who he really was and in capturing the complexity in both his character and the political situation at large. We get a much more accurate and nuanced understanding of history when we study the people first and weave the great historical events into their story.
Lastly, by learning about the people of history, we discover new heroes to emulate, villains to dissect, and interesting people to broaden our ideas about the world. We learn bravery from the brave, honor from the honorable, and wisdom from the wise. We become better by learning from better.
Learning History Through the Classics
For hundreds of years history wasn’t learned through all-in-one textbooks that comprise the heart of history education today, particularly in K-12. While some history textbooks are good in their presentation of history, I can’t say they are ever as engaging as the alternatives. Typical textbooks, though helpful to have on-hand as a quick reference and for learning history through a more scientific approach, give the birds-eye view of history without any of the character or color that makes learning history interesting. The root of the matter is that motivation is the majority of the battle when teaching any subject: if the student doesn’t care, the student won’t learn.
Instead of reading “all inclusive” history textbooks, most the educated in antiquity learned through reading the works of the great historians: Herodotus, Plutarch, Thucydides, Edward Gibbon, among others. Reading the historical “Great Books” is the primary method of learning history in the classical approach to education and provides the added bonus of simultaneous education in language and literature. Many of the great books (which you can out more about here) take the approach I’ve suggested, whereby storytelling and people are emphasized about mere names and dates.
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