Put the Story in History

Why not use more historical fiction to hook kids on history? Make our astonishing past a life habit, not a skills exam forgotten hours after it's taken.
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People learn through stories. Jesus told parables. Abraham Lincoln charmed his way with humorous tales. Ronald Reagan enthralled audiences with anecdotes he kept on 3-by-5 cards.

Too many history textbook writers don't understand this, and the result is abysmal historical memory by many Americans. Most historians can't write, and so too many Americans "don't know much about history."

One way to get them hooked is historical fiction, which emphasizes the "story" in history.

The subject popped into the news recently with Sarah Palin's rambling mangling of the story of Paul Revere, a level of ignorance which has to be seen (YouTube) to be believed.

It was followed a few days later by the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed only half of American students are "proficient" in history and only 2 percent of high school seniors understood the significance of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision striking down segregated schools.

This is not a new lament. Historians have been bemoaning Americans' lack of memory since the early 20th century, with survey after survey showing students and adults retain little historical literacy.

As a historical novelist, I study history for a living. Motto: I read boring books so you don't have to, and glean the good stuff for historical thrillers.

From Blood of the Reich a reader could learn about pre-War Nazi SS exploration of Tibet, the cost of a 1938 plane ride across the Pacific, or a capsule summary of particle physics -- but all that amid a yarn of shootouts, escapes, and rescues. From Napoleon's Pyramids and The Rosetta Key, I explore the early perils of Western intervention in the Middle East, but only through the misadventures of an American rascal. From The Dakota Cipher and The Barbary Pirates, I key off more somber books about the heroic French voyageur fur trade, and an ingenious submarine invented by Robert Fulton a century ahead of its time.

So here's an idea: why not use more historical fiction to hook kids on history? Make our astonishing past a life habit, not a skills exam forgotten hours after it's taken.

Historical fiction worked for me. I loved reading history while growing up but despised history textbooks; even as a teen I knew tedious writing when I saw it. I suffered through history class and then went home to read popular history and historical novels for fun.

While I did score 15 out of 15 on a history quiz of questions given to high school seniors posted on the NPR site, like most adults I've forgotten more about the Missouri Compromise or Vasco de Gama than I remember.

What I do remember are stories.

Sarah Palin might benefit from the children's Revolutionary War novel Johnny Tremain. I remember the tale of Squanto helping Pilgrims from a juvenile novel read in grade school. I got the Indian side of the Little Big Horn way back in 1958 from Disney's movie and novel Tonka, a decade ahead of its time in attitudes toward Custer's Last Stand. I use Benjamin Franklin in my own novels, but first got hooked on him from Ben and Me, a novel about his (yes, fictional) mouse Amos.

At a higher reading level, perhaps The Red Badge of Courage or Gone With The Wind could get students interested in the Civil War as a lead-in to what all the shooting and shouting was about. The Great Gatsby on the Roaring Twenties. The Grapes of Wrath on the Depression. The comic novels The Mouse That Roared, Slaughterhouse Five, and Catch 22 on the lunacy of modern conflict. The Man Who Would Be King or The Sand Pebbles on colonial imperialism. The Help or Beloved on race relations.

Websites like librarybooklists.org have far more complete juvenile literature suggestions that teachers could draw from.

History textbooks are carefully calibrated to offend as few school boards as possible, but the result is that they lack what historical fiction frequently has: attitude. My hero Ethan Gage views great events with a skeptic's eye. Fiction personalizes history and injects humor, tragedy, romance, and peril: exactly the kind of thing to get teens interested in something beyond comic book superheroes. Our ancestors were not just inspiring but flawed, and more interesting because of it.

Shakespeare knew this too, and mined history relentlessly.

Yes, we learn history to take lessons and avoid mistakes. But we also learn to be inspired and appalled by all that humans are capable of. The laws and treaties so prized by textbook authors are the dry embalming of passion and courage, ambition and desire, fear and prejudice. Why do schoolbooks leave all the fun stuff out? History is whip and disease, immigrant journey and slum survival, scurvy and silly fashion. It is march, riot, strike, festival, and ball.

It's about a comfortable Boston silversmith risking his life to warn about a clever British night march to seize colonial arms and stop a revolt in its tracks.

Yes, Paul Revere. Hell of a story.

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